Posted tagged ‘Oxford’

Two things a writer has to beware of. Wrist cramps and…

February 22, 2010

… CLICHÉS! So, what is a cliché? Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about it.

1. The French name for a stereotype block; a cast or ‘dab’; applied esp. to a metal stereotype of a wood-engraving used to print from.

2. Extended to the negative in photography.

3. a. fig. A stereotyped expression, a commonplace phrase; also, a stereotyped character, style, etc. Also collect.

b. attrib. and Comb., as cliché-monger, -personality; cliché-ridden adj.

c. Used as adj. Stereotyped, hackneyed.
And this is what these puppies have to contribute.

No originality whatsoever.

Well, that dictionary excerpt was a fun read, yeah? Just about as fun as reading or watching something that makes us roll our eyes and sigh, thinking, “I’ve seen it all before!” Worst part is, unlike reading the definition from the Good Book of Oxford, all we learn from clichés is that the writer has run out of ideas. However, how do we avoid clichés when everything has been done before?
I think that there’s a difference between a cliché and simply a trope. I won’t bother going the really pedantic way of whipping out another Oxford Dictionary definition so I’ll just say a trope is a convention used throughout a particular genre of writing or film. If you look at space operas, chances are there will be ray guns. Look at horror movies, there will be a monster or killer. There are simply a lot of things we see repeated just because they work within their genre. In mystery novels, we usually follow a detective or someone working close by the detective (here’s looking at you, Watson) not because the writer is unoriginal but because who else would have such a privileged position to follow the events of the story? In the end, shadowing the detective or cop or what have you works which is why it is still used and enjoyed. However, there are some things, like week old eggs, that we simply don’t enjoy because they have just gotten stale… and at worst green.
This site provides a wopping list of sci-fi clichés. Some of them are listed as forgivable, while some are listed as gag-reflex triggering and I bet for those who know their sci-fi there’s no question why. So, what makes the cliché stand apart from the trope and why must a writer fear it? Part of the reason is based on holding a reader’s attention yet it goes even further than that. When you write, you are supposed to draw the reader in to the experience. The reader should care about the characters and should believe the plot is logical and essential, providing adequate motivation for the characters to do what they do. The writing, the flow of words, makes a weave of ideas, images, and feelings that the reader can get to these characters and places through. Yet, the brain is a funny thing. A cliché is a cliché precisely because it has been used so often and in so many contexts we just pick it out. Our brain locks on to it once we see it and we notice that things have suddenly gotten quiet….. too quiet. I’m sure as you read that last bit you were feeling it, that sense of familiarity that draws you out of the flow of ideas.
This is why the cliché is so dangerous to a writer. The writer must maintain strict control of the reader’s attention so as not to lose the reader. There are other things besides cliché avoidance that relate to this but we’ll stick to this matter for now. If a series of words rips the reader out of the story, the writer has ruined the seamless feel of the narrative, thus breaking suspension of disbelief. As an analogy, it’s very much like breaking the fourth wall and reminding the reader they are in fact reading this and not experiencing it at some level. Whereas the trope is simply a facet of the genre, often integral or at least part of the culture surrounding it, the cliché is a bit like a parasite. It travels from host to host. There are some genre specific clichés of course like in mystery having the detective be a tough-as-nails silent type with a bottle of hard alcohol in one hand and a femme fatale in the other arm but that could also be said of the romantic interest in a romance story. These kinds of clichés appear everywhere and thus make themselves unwelcome everywhere. Whereas the trope is simply something that works and that can be tweaked to make something new which brings me to the final point.
Some say that there are really only a handful of story types out there and I think they’re correct. We want something that means something to us as people, something we can relate to. We can relate to a quest or to falling in love. We can empathize with someone being terrorized or being driven to revenge. These stories represent aspects of human life and behavior. So how does originality come from that? The different genres help, taking their own specialized trimmings and layering it over these basic story archetypes. But then what? Does that mean we’re stuck with recycling the same genre tropes with different story frames? Yes and no.
Ideas are shared. If you’ve ever heard of it or thought about it, it means the idea was there in some form since you can’t think that which doesn’t exist. Even the original ideas are often times amalgamations of lots of ideas that were already there and that’s the trick to creating something new: synthesis. Look at the world around you. Take the most disparate things and try to combine them together to see if what results can be put into a story. While there may be no truly new ideas out there, there are surely an infinite number of ways one can combine things that are already there.
So look around, experiment with new combinations of ideas, then get writing. Don’t worry about the wrist cramps though. That’s a sign you’re doing something right.