The title of this post almost says it all. Almost. And yes, I cribbed it from those ubiquitous lists of rules for writers—the funny ones. Since I’ve seen it on several different lists, I feel okay about using it for my title.
Why do I say it almost says it all? Well, obvious clichés should be avoided, except in dialogue, totally. Even there, don’t overdo it unless you create a character who talks that way all the time. Even then, be careful, and make him funny.
Unfortunately, there are other, more subtle clichés happening in stories. One is the pat description, such as “She was beautiful,” and “He was handsome.” The vast majority of heroines and heroes are good-looking. Same goes for describing a person more specifically. Blue-eyed blonde is pretty common. Red-headed and freckles. Then there is clothing. Here is a great place to show a person’s personality, status, possible wealth, and other traits. But please, not in a laundry-list way. Make it interesting. Give the details out as they come up. Not:
“He wore a blue suit, white shirt with French cuffs, and his gold cufflinks gleamed. His tasseled loafers had a high polish, and when he shot his cuffs, the Rolex watch peeked into view.”
Who cares? Instead, show the details as the story unfolds. The blue suit matches the color of his eyes (be specific about shade) when we first see him. Later, the cuff-links are shaped as lions’ heads because (make up a reason). Even later, out walking with him, he gets some dirt on his tasseled loafers and shakes it off in disgust. And your main character knows he shot his cuffs on purpose in order to show off that Rolex. Isn’t he more interesting already?
(Another disclaimer: If you read some of my earlier stuff, you’ll probably see the laundry-list problem, especially in descriptions. I’m trying to use this method now because I do believe it’s a much more elegant way to go.)
Settings can also reduce themselves to clichés. The teashop, bookstore, cubicle office, mansion or trailer. Again, hit the interesting details and leave the rest out. Intersperse those details as your character moves through the setting instead of all in one lump when she first arrives on the scene.
Then there are whole characters who have become clichés. The alcoholic police officer or PI. The little old lady who solves crimes. The spunky heroine and dashing hero. The beautiful female lawyer/doctor/veterinarian/you-name-it who is smarter than all the men in the story.
Be careful of these characters. Be sure to give them some quirks and problems that are not seen in lots of other stories. Make your plot twisty enough and the quirks detrimental enough to keep the reader happy.
Now plots are a whole ‘nother thing. It’s been said there are only three. Or twenty-six (or some such number). Or a hundred. Certainly the plots for mystery novels (crime committed, protag finds out whodunit) and romances (girl meets boy, something keeps them apart, but they end up together in the end) have standard plotlines. There’s no getting around those, or you end up in another genre. But the reader doesn’t mind that. It’s what she expects and feels comfortable with. Allow her that whole comfort zone, but leave out the other clichés, big and small, to get her interested, to get her blood racing, to get her turning those pages as fast as she can.
Hint: First draft, go ahead and make your laundry list. Second draft, get those details interspersed in appropriate places. After you’ve done this a few times, you might be able to do it naturally during first draft.
Clichés can come back to haunt you. Be careful out there!