Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Cliches: Can't Live With 'Em, Can't Live Without 'Em

I'm not sure how I feel about clichés.  Even that tepid opinion would get me laughed out of a few writers groups.  Clichés are the devil, right?  To be avoided at all costs? 

I’m not so sure.  Isn’t there a certain amount of comfort in a cliché?  Isn’t a cliché simply a way of communicating a concept at its heart?  Can they be overused? For sure!  But is ‘being on the same page’ with someone really such a bad thing?  The answer to that argument is that a cliché is basically lazy writing, that a writer should spend the time to convey the concept in a new and exciting way (fresh!).  If you are under a time limit when you are writing, must the choice be between originality or ease of communication? 

I used to think so.  Then I realized that I didn’t think all clichés were evil, that, in fact, I kind of liked some of them.  Is that just my rebellious side showing through as it is wont to do (especially at inopportune moments)?  I don’t think so.

It’s about resonance.  The emotional connection with either what is being communicated or the way it is.  All writers strive for resonance—creating the connection with the reader.  And whether we know it or not we are embarking upon that high wire act between familiar and original.  Familiar can create that resonance, that connection to keep the reader interested and hopefully invested in the characters we create.  But make your tale too familiar and we risk boring the reader.  So, we spice it up.  We spin a yarn like none ever experienced before (again, hopefully) and our reader loves us for it, tells their friends, and sets us up for a great career path as a teller of tales. 

The more I thought about it, the more comfortable I was using the occasional cliché.  I made my peace with breaking that particular writing rule.  But then I kept thinking (silly brain!) and wondering how far the comfort level of familiarity applies.  We all hear about the ‘formulaic’ Hollywood movies.  Isn’t formulaic the same concept as cliché?  I mean, a certain fictional setup wouldn’t have become a formula if it wasn’t quite successful in first place, just the same way a cliché doesn’t really become a cliché unless it is used over and over enough to make it into our common language.   

Is formulaic bad? Is that even a fair question—bad and good being denominations of taste and therefore indefinable except on the individual level? (Got a little college-y with that last one, sorry.)

Well, I don’t have an answer to that except to say it all comes down to the tight rope that we walk when we write.  Only, we don’t know if we are keeping our balance as we go.  We only find that out later when our work reaches the masses and is either embraced or shunned.  Happy writing to all!

Linky Links: 

Here is link to a cool lecture by Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, Outliers) talking about Hollywood formula makers at a New Yorker conference: