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Cliches Are Okay: OR How I Feel About Formulaic Writing

If you are critiquing a work of art – either created by a peer or seen on a big screen – it’s important to be able to spot cliches. It helps us understand what phrase or scenario might prove redundant in our work. It can also push us to express the same idea differently to have a separate effect. Still, cliches on their own aren’t all that bad even if its definition leans that way.

So what is a cliche to most? According to Literary Devices:

Cliché refers to an expression that has been overused to the extent that it loses its original meaning or novelty. A cliché may also refer to actions and events that are predictable because of some previous events.”

Recently a friend asked me:

Sometimes I worry that what I am writing is just too cliche. I keep re-editing my work thinking this has probably been done before. Do you go through that with your writing, and how do you push pass it?

The older I get, the more I realize that “cliches” as an idea are more a false dilemma that critics will put on different works only when it’s convenient, and authors will impose on themselves as a creative trap.

Setting aside the idea that there are no new ideas in the world, it’s easy to tell when a cliche works for someone when they forgive it in one form of media but bastardize another for trying it out. It’s subjective and is often a catch-all concern that critics will use to bucket something as “unimportant” or “devaluing” to them without looking at what it provides otherwise to a story. Because this type of criticism is so rampant online, artists feel unmotivated to try out certain cliches for fear they’ll be tossed into a category, as well. But the simple use of the cliche isn’t truly the problem. It’s a layered conversation about “is this genre really for you,” “who is the targeted audience,” “why might the author employ this method and what might it be saying in the work overall.”

In “Between Cliché and Creativity: The Psychology of Expectations in Story,” the following is said: “If good writing stimulates, the hallmark of a good writer is his ability to surprise the reader. To this end the problem with clichés is their predictability.”

While I do agree with that sentiment, I believe it all depends on the presentation or framework built around the cliche that changes how it may be perceived. But before we go any further, just remember: As a writer you can’t please everyone even if your work is devoid of as many obvious cliches as you can manage.

So. What type of cliche are we truly talking about – circumstantial or one found in prose? In writing it could be either, which is why it’s important to note what the cliche is and why we’re not a fan of it if we’re going to use that as a means for critique on a work.

One way to avoid clichés is to ditch traditional plot lines and focus on life as it is actually lived. This is the goal of some postmodern writers. The problem with this so-called hyperrealist fiction is it does away with the most important element of story: conflict.

Between Cliché and Creativity

I disagree with this sentiment, though their point on postmodernism is true. Conflict exists in life, so even hyperrealist fiction wouldn’t lack it. However, cliches are also incredibly relateable, which is why we fallback on them in media and language so often.

Many sitcoms are known for homages to classic media and overdone cliches. Yet, despite their formulaic storytelling, sitcoms continue to be a thriving part of television. But these sitcom writers know that in order to make a joke stick, you have to consider where it fits in the story. An interesting shift for writing cliches is the culture of characters who receive them.

Building the Framework

Take for example the classic “will they/won’t they”. This is one I actually quite enjoy when done properly, and we see it all the time in shows focused heavily on romantic or sexual attraction between characters – because, let’s face it, that’s 90% of the conflict in these shows.

Cheers is one of my favorite sitcoms, so overtime I’ll probably use it quite a bit to talk about some of my favorite character dynamics and use of limited setting. In this instance, we’re looking at two character relationships centered around Sam.

When Cheers began, it introduced you to the bartender and the recently-single-professional-student-made-waitress Diane. Sam and Diane are a classic duo. They spend the better part of the beginning of the show denying their feelings for one another, only to eventually cave to their carnal desires and end up in a relationship. What makes their dynamic so interesting and perfect for a situational comedy is in how diametrically-opposed the two truly are.

Sam is a playboy trying to reform for the sake of his love for Diane, while catching himself up in ridiculous and petty high jinks that cause him to lie or otherwise be an unreliable partner. Diane on the other hand has a blossoming mind with an immense love of arts and travel and philosophy, and she finds herself constantly at odds with her surroundings and Sam. While Sam – a man of simplistic tastes – often poses Diane throughout their relationship as overbearing and unrepentant in her elitism, he does go out of his way to grow because of and for her. Meanwhile, Diane herself even learns to temper some of her own behaviors that made her unlikable and combative.

While these two are not exactly fit for long-term involvement, their relationship took the “will they/won’t they” to a “they did/they’re done” in a ride of strange emotions and hilarious arguments that not only made for passionate scenes but an exciting rise and fall.

On the other hand, Cheers introduced that same cliche with the exit of Shelley Long, when Kirstie Alley joined the cast as Rebecca Howe. Rebecca was flirtatious and just as unapologetically impulsive and ridiculous as even Sam was. While she represented a corporate woman who had worked hard to become an executive and eventual manager of Cheers, she lacked the same poise and elocution of Diane. And that worked out well as a character introduction that didn’t feel as though the writers were just trying to fill in a void Diane left. Instead, Rebecca was both ambitious and understood Sam’s world. It was their similarities that made their relationship quite different from Sam and Diane’s.

Rebecca and Sam could appreciate each other’s attractiveness and on more than one occasion even teased each other (later hooking up). But eventually their similarities caused the two of them to have a strong friendship in one another that was surprising for audiences waiting for Sam’s next big fling.

Even as friends they tried to have a child together, but in the end it was devoid of passion for each other in a romantic sense. More so, they were driven by the idea of age creeping up to them and losing their chance to be what life told them they had to be: successful, married, with children. Together they both learned they could have unexpected endings that didn’t have to involve those dreams. And when their “will they/won’t they” turned into “not really,” you still left feeling completely satisfied by their stories. (Even if you secretly shipped them anyway.)

With both relationships, we can see how the way a cliche is presented can change how it may end or just how it gets there. If either relationship had ended in a happily-ever-after, as is predicted by this trope, their experience of getting there (and the audience’s experience of seeing it happen) isn’t going to be the same as another show with the same theme. These characters, and the feelings we get from following their stories, is inherently different; therefore, the use of said cliche is a valid dynamic for the writers to explore.

Cliches don’t exist the same way for creatives as they might the spectator.

Writers have the chance to take something like a cliche and give it more flare so audiences forgive that they’ve seen it before in a different setting. And while having an audience certainly can push and motivate a writer into continuing to work on their art, it is just as much of a self-indulgent practice and passion for the creator. This in particular is something audiences may forget when they’re upset with the result of the work. For someone it is still important.

That said, things can obviously be executed poorly – passion or not. But it helps to remember that whether it’s fanfiction or a book on a shelf, it’s doing something for someone.

If we are to explore the world of fiction as an entertainment medium, we have to be open to the idea that archetypes, themes, tropes and settings we’ve seen a million times before have their own genre for a reason. Those cliches – redundant and predictable as they may be – still speak to someone and reach them in ways that are important.

Self-Indulgence

Cliches and the act of self-indulgence in art isn’t necessarily laziness or a lack of creativity, when it’s given purpose and a new perspective. Even more so, there is a psychological reason why cliches continue to work in media.

Hephzibah Anderson writes in “In praise of the cliche” about linguistic cliches:

Strip them from a sentence and its sense remains unchanged. Attempt the same with an apposite cliché and you might find you’re missing more than succinct wisdom. You’ve lost a bit of history because, far from being vacuous, the most enduring clichés tether you to generations of human experience.

In other words, cliches help form communities and they often come from something deeper than just a casual expression worn down by many. You understand each other when you hear certain turns of phrases, and you still gather what the intended message is. This also works in circumstantial cliches where the writing recycles scenarios we’ve seen before in other stories or in life. It gives us something to call back and relate to.

Realistically, the psychology behind group think and social proof that moves us to behave and present ourselves in specific ways – whether it’s in “classic” Instagram posed posts or the way we “meme” – is living proof of our own hypocrisy in how we package and label cliches in art. Everyday we use language to express the same ideas and feed off of subculture behaviors like internet memes. We do this without a second thought, and we’re often contributing to cliches for a new age.

So, if the coffee shop Instagram shot is okay, then the overdone scene or expression in writing should also have its own place in media once in a while.

Sure, Instagram-ers and millennials alike receive a lot of flack for their presence online, but overall our psychological drive for social proof – the idea that we are part of something and experiencing something with our peers, even looking to them for direction – hasn’t changed our behaviors online despite criticism.

In the same vein, these desires drive the content we create and consume, and we should encourage that exploration. We get to have conversations about media and experience the same stories secondhand by these characters. And in many ways, we may even subconsciously look to our favorite characters for how to respond and behave in the real world. That’s perfectly fine and normal.

Tropes fulfill that function in the same way that book covers often conform to genre clichés so readers know what to expect from the story inside. For many, the tropes are why they like a story, so they’re certainly not something to avoid.

Jami Gold, “Story Tropes: How Do We Twist a Cliché?

Just as your favorite Instagram account may change the perspective or shift your idea of the “rule of thirds” with their technique in a coffee shop photo, writers can make a story enticing so long as they’re not allowing the cliche to overrun their story’s purpose.

Art is allowed to be self-indulgent adventures for the creator and the consumer. Even if it is riddled with cliches, who cares if it has value to the people participating? The goal is to make sure the writing is saying something and your time isn’t wasted by those formulaic expressions and ideas.

But if you’ve got more than one way to say something, try out something new. You’ll end up making the same point while pleasing an audience searching for those cliches, without feeling as though your work lacks distinction.

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