Monday, June 02, 2008

The Use of Clichés

I was asked recently by a reader about the use of clichés. She used the example of the protagonist waking up in the morning and starting the day, looking in the mirror and criticizing her appearance—she had heard these were taboo. I personally have never heard of anything being taboo, but will say these sound like really boring openings to me, which is probably why some people think they’re taboo.

Nothing is taboo if done differently and in an interesting manner, but there are a lot of things I see on a regular basis that feel easy to me, like the author followed a formula. Dreams are one example of what I guess you would call a clichéd opening. I see so many books that open with a scary dream. They are meant to draw the reader in and hold our attention, until the protagonist wakes up, and goes to the mirror to criticize her appearance. Now, dreams can definitely be effective and I’ve represented more than one dream book, but if done in a different, non-clichéd way.

Your examples are not effective simply because they are boring. Imagine if you asked me about my day, or the typical day of an agent, and I told you something like this: “I woke up at 5:30 and laid in bed for ten minutes debating whether I was really going to make it to the gym. After finally dragging myself out of bed and hunting for my slippers, I wandered into the bathroom. I had to close my eyes to the bright light before I could get a good look at myself in the mirror. My sunken . . .” Snooze! However, if you asked me about my day and I said, “I got a call from Tim Jin and the editor of All About Me Books offering $15,000,000,00 for my memoir. I couldn’t believe it. . . .” Now you’re interested. I’m not sure if these are clichés or just recommended Don’ts.

The opening of any book should grab the readers’ attention and put us into the action of the story, but action doesn’t always have to be physical. What people mean when they want the book to start with action is they don’t want the boring opening of the day, they want to actually get to something that moves us forward into the next scene and gives us immediate insight into the characters or the plot.

I was asked if I could come up with a list of clichés and the only one that jumped out at me was the dream sequence above, but I bet there are a lot of things the readers are sick of seeing. So I open it up to you. What techniques do you feel have become cliché and what would you like not to see again?

Jessica

41 comments:

Sean McLachlan said...

I was critiquing a fantasy novel where the warrior heroine is camping alone. Suddenly, half a dozen bandits surround her. I immediately thought "Oh, she's going to fight valiantly, but they'll overpower her, and just before the gang rape her, a male warrior will come along, save her, and they'll fall in love."

Yep, that's what happened!

The most insidious cliches are plot cliches. If I'm reading a book and I suddenly realize that I read the same idea ten years ago, I'm not going to be a happy reader.

Sheila Connolly said...

Prologues in which an unknown victim is brutally murdered, and then you don't read anything about that person or the murder until halfway through the book.

Kristin said...

Prologues wherein you read about the bad guy and his childhood and what caused him to become bad.

Chro said...

Anyone whose 'life is turned upside down' or 'faces inner demons'.

Spinney said...

Personally, any book which has the phrase "she nursed him back to health" gets my eyes rolling.

It happens a lot.

Kathleen said...

Mine's a bit different. I can't stand it when a hero is supposed to be honorable and makes a vow not to seduce the heroine... and a few chapters later is "so overcome by passion" that they fall into bed anyway. I get the feeling that this is supposed to make the reader realize how world-shattering their passion is. All it does to me is prove that the man isn't worth being called a hero, because he can't keep his word. (It's no better if the woman makes the vow, but that's not nearly so cliche.)

Karen Duvall said...

A book that begins with a variation of "It was a dark and stormy night." Zzzzzzzz...

Anonymous said...

In response to Chro, 8:48am--

Personally, I like the books that start with someone whose life is turning upside down in the first chapter, or faces inner demons for that matter.

It's exciting to see someone at the moment of change ... lets me know the book is going to be strong in characterization, that I'm going to get to watch this character grow.

As long as the opening includes some sort of allusions to a mystery in their past which will come out later, the “flawed hero/heroine coming into their own” are the best stories to read.

In my book, anyway. :-)

Amie Stuart said...

I agree w/Anon 10:43. Stories like that are stellar, if well executed. I read one this weekend and it rocked--not only was the heroine's life turned upside down but she had to face some nasty inner demons *ggg*

I even think "It was a dark and stormy night..." can work under the right circumstances.

I dunno maybe I"m a Pollyanna =)

Jules said...

I think any "cliche" can work if well written, with a fresh perspective....that's the challenge

Bernita said...

Am becoming tired of the vampire who runs a bistro.

Anonymous said...

Books that open with the scene of the scion becoming orphaned have become a bit tedious. Scenes of exiled queens dying in childbirth or coaches overcome by the henchmen of the rival royal relative, sort of thing. *yawn*

Vivien V. said...

I notice a lot of writers starting with an explanation of the weather...and then they move into the story. Most of the time the weather has absolutely nothing to do with what comes after - so why mention it?

Fantasy writers in particular usually start with a Prologue that is so far-removed from the story it's instantly forgettable. I say, start with your main character.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Sacred artifacts that can save the world if the hero(es) retain them, or destroy it if the bad guys get it. It's just very hard to do now without being compared too closely to a million other fantasy books.

Kristin Laughtin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aimless Writer said...

I'm tired of hero's or heroines having had a difficult life and thats what brought them to this point. Blah. We all had difficult lives. I say deal and move on but don't let it be a motivation for the whole book.

Anonymous said...

The cliche I'm most tired of is, "Tastes differ. Just because this is not right for us does not mean it is not good."

Elissa M said...

Ha ha, anon 3:02. But your example also points out the reason many things seem cliche is because they are true.

Anonymous said...

Cliche: John Grisham (or more precisely, and less cruelly, anything so obviously formulaic)

Anonymous said...

I critique a lot of children's fiction and hate the almost ubiquitous bullying scene in the opening chapter, as though it's supposed to tug on the reader's heart strings and make them want to protect the poor little mc. After reading several dozen I start thinking the little shit probably deserves everything that's coming to them.

Anonymous said...

Opening with breakfast - yawn.

Anonymous said...

...or even, opening with a husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, mother/daughter, having a row - gets another yawn.

Jules said...

Anon 3:37...thanks for the my laugh of the day!

Chris Redding said...

Any book that has the hero (who was raised motherless in a house full of men) who actually knows what color mauve is and that the way the heroine's hair is up is a chignon. I have long hair and I have no idea what a chignon is.

Irate Teacher said...

The hero detective being awakened by a phone call. My God, can we really not think of a better "attention grabber" than this? I'd much rather the hero detective awaken to find a gun at his temple, and a voice saying "answer the phone, and do exactly as I tell you." Even though it's been done to death as well, at least that would be a FUN cliche.

And Anon 3:37...as a high school teacher, I can honestly say by the time they get to me if they don't deserve it, then the others think they just aren't trying hard enough.

Chumplet said...

Okay, I admit it. My heroine criticized herself in a mirror while in the loo on a flight to New Zealand.

I only hope I did it right.

Julie Weathers said...

The damsel in distress escaping on a raging black stallion no one else can ride. She's never been on a horse, but she has a "gift."

Raging black stallions, period.

Impossibly beautiful women who are fantastic warriors and always wind up naked by the end of the fight

Julie Weathers said...

Prologues in which an unknown victim is brutally murdered, and then you don't read anything about that person or the murder until halfway through the book.~

Hmmm, my poor knight does die brutally in the prologue.

Personally, I like the books that start with someone whose life is turning upside down in the first chapter, or faces inner demons for that matter.~

Oh dear, yes, my mc is being sent to a sisterhood instead of being allowed to join the cavalry like she planned.

...or even, opening with a husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, mother/daughter, having a row - gets another yawn.~

Yep, Mom and Dad are in the herb garden arguing in the opening.

Dang it all. I thought I was being so original.

Tara said...

I am so tired of reading books where the protag is a writer. There are other careers guys!!!

JDuncan said...

Let's face it, most openings, plotlines, character problems, etc. have been done to the point of being cliche.' The trick of course is to do it in such a way that the reader doesn't really realize what they are reading has been done 432 times before. For me, any sort of scene, whether it be a dream or waking up to the phone, or whatever works just fine as long as it serves a useful and interesting purpose within the story. Readers can be pretty damn forgiving if it's written well.

JDuncan

jjdebenedictis said...

"[Protagonist] brushed a lock of [adjective] hair back from [his/her] face."

Clumsy, clumsy, clumsy. Besides, do I really need to know the protagonist's hair colour on page one? Characterization isn't as important as character.

December/Stacia said...

Oh, Tara, I totally agree. I especially dislike erotic romances where the heroine is a secret erotic romance writer, ugh.

I also strongly dislike historicals where the heroine's father is so amazingly liberal he had her learn how to swordfight like a man. I can just about see a father who would teach his little girl some sneaky dirty tricks to avoid being raped, but it seems like--at least it did for a while there--every father in medieval Europe was a bastion of Girl Power and bought his daughter a broadsword for her seventh birthday or something.

Chro said...

Allow me to clarify my earlier comment. I don't mind if someone's 'life is turned upside down' or if they 'face inner demons', as long as neither of those cliched phrases is used to describe it! I suppose that's more of a query letter thing, though.

He's another cliche I can't stand, which I've actually seen numerous times. A protag and a love interest develop a wonderful relationship that everyone is cheering for, when the love interest realizes that if they end up together, disaster will strike (usually with the protag's death.) So instead of discussing this with the protag like a rational adult, the love interst decides to be a complete jerk to the protag, break his/her heart, and hope that the protag dumps them and disaster is averted.

Kate Douglas said...

Love this! Dreams are a main part of my story line--my Chanku shapeshifters often have dreams of running through forests, smelling and hearing things that make no sense to them BEFORE they discover they have the ability to shift, so I've used the dream sequence more than once to open a story. Now every time I do it, however, I'll be thinking CLICHE!

Anonymous said...

I despise the use of sex scenes as ubiquitous filler. When the plot is mainly if/when/how many time the hero and heroine will have sex and nothing else of interest really happens, I just roll my eyes at such lazy writing.

I also dislike figuring out the ending by chapter three. If the plot is that formulaic, the book just isn't worth reading.

Julie Weathers said...

I also strongly dislike historicals where the heroine's father is so amazingly liberal he had her learn how to swordfight like a man. I can just about see a father who would teach his little girl some sneaky dirty tricks to avoid being raped, but it seems like--at least it did for a while there--every father in medieval Europe was a bastion of Girl Power and bought his daughter a broadsword for her seventh birthday or something.~

*cries* That does it. My whole book is cliche.

Actually, the Sarmatians did have women warriors as part of their culture and there are Celtic war goddesses.

I think, in the end, cliche depends on how it's done. There really is so little new under the sun. Even Tolkien drew heavily on mythology.

Anonymous said...

I heartily dislike prologues composed of a scene taken from the middle of the novel, and used purely to provide some action to hook the reader in. If Chapter 1 is that weak, then rewrite it, don't buttress it with a prologue.

Jana Lubina said...

Virginal heroines who have wild, passionate, sweaty sex with their Desgnated Love Interest and we're suppose to deduce from this that they've fallen in love and will live happily after after -- after the stupid plot twists that keep them apart, of course. My favourite is the hero believing he's "too dark" or a "bad influence" and thereby justifies leaving her....for all of three chapters before they're reunited again.

That feels like a lot of books I've read.

Oh, and fiery redheads -- just kill them please.

Lucy said...

"it seems like--at least it did for a while there--every father in medieval Europe was a bastion of Girl Power and bought his daughter a broadsword for her seventh birthday or something."

Ow, you made me laugh! Personally, I enjoy the sword-wielding heroine if she's plausible: Georgette Heyer's "The Masqueraders" is a great example. Although, it is a somewhat later period, and our heroine's father is clearly cracked on at least some levels. (Blame everything on dad, it works every time.)

Plot cliche I loathe the most: Hero and heroine hate each other on sight, spend four-fifths of the book fighting, and fall passionately in love with each other at the end. By that time, I'm sick of them both! I'm also disgusted with the author, who is asking me to believe that two people with no conflict resolution skills, and no shared interest except the obvious one, are going to have the slightest prospect of a happy future relationship. And, oh, such a sweet time Bringing Up Baby.

Chessie said...

Any opening where a woman is picking medicinal herbs in a garden, or a prologue where some poor woman dies in childbirth during a storm.

I'm going to add my hear hear to the liberal broadsword buying daddies and the running away from oppression on the back of an enormous black stallion. For once, I'd love to see the heroine sneak off on some sway backed sorrel nag that won't stop eating weeds on the side of the road. Now that would be different.

Linda said...

I think some of the worst cliches come out of trying to write novels by imitating movies. Lately, I've seen a lot of writing where it was pretty obvious the writer watched movies instead of coming up with his own ideas. It's particularly noticeable because once Hollywood has a success with something, everyone else imitates until it becomes a cliche.

Most recent cliche I've seen--a character counting bullets fired during a raging gunfight.