On Clichés and Writing

Photo credit: Tom Newby Photography
Oh, clichés. We writers hear about them all the time—how to avoid them and how to recognize them and exorcise them from our work to avoid the dreaded words of this is a cliché.

But lately I’ve been thinking about plot-related clichés and how, while we’re advised to avoid them whenever possible, they sometimes work.

The Hunger Games, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown and Every Day all start with their protagonists waking up. And each of them make it interesting and necessary and twist the cliché in a way that works.

Divergent the opens with a cliché writers are often told to avoid: characters describing themselves while looking in a mirror. And yet Roth did it and got away with it why? Because she made it work.

Now does that mean as writers that we shouldn’t bother trying to avoid clichés? Not so much. As many of Amy Trueblood’s first five pages interviews with agents have shown, clichés in openings in particular are often an instant turn-off for agents who see them way overused. But on the other hand, I don’t think the use of a cliché means the immediate death of your manuscript either…as long as it’s handled well.

Let’s take a look at the opening clichés in the published books I mentioned above.

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) starts like this:
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim`s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the Reaping.”
Why does this work? Because this isn’t a typical character waking up and brushing their teeth like every other day morning. This opening is laced with foreshadowing and a sense of foreboding, and right off the bat readers are left with questions.

Now The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (Holly Black):
“Tana woke lying in a bathtub. Her legs were drawn up, her cheek pressed against the cold metal of the faucet. A slow drip had soaked the fabric on her shoulder and wetted locks of her hair. The rest of her, including her clothes, was still completely dry, which was kind of a relief. Her neck felt stiff; her shoulders ached…”
Why does this work? Because Tana woke in a bathtub for crying out loud. We know (or at least, sincerely hope) this isn’t normal and as she begins to take in her surrounds, we get the sense more and more that something is off.

Now Every Day (David Levithan):
“I wake up. 
Immediately I have to figure out who I am. It’s not just the body—opening my eyes and discovering whether the skin on my arm is light or dark, whether my hair is long or short, whether I’m fat or thin, boy or girl, scarred or smooth.The body is the easiest thing to adjust to, if you’re used to waking up in a new one each morning…” 
I think it’s pretty obvious why this works so well, namely, our protagonist immediately tells us he wakes up on a new body every day. That this is normal for him, which to me, is insanely intriguing.

Finally, Divergent (Veronica Roth):
“There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.” 
Why does this work? Because when she looks at her reflection, she has to sneak a look, because it’s not allowed. Tris has rarely ever seen her reflection up to that point, and is only permitted to sit in front of a (hidden) mirror once every three months.

These are just a couple examples, but the point is this: while clichés are generally best to be avoided, if you’re creative with them and make them unique to your manuscript in one way or another, they can still work.

What do you think? Have you ever tried to make a cliché work in a manuscript of yours? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Are clichés a death sentence to your MS? Here's why writer @Ava_Jae says not necessarily. (Click to tweet
"While clichés are generally best to be avoided...they can still work." (Click to tweet)


M Kinnel said...

Hmm...I've always feared the cliché and after reading your post, I will still be avoiding them in my writing. Your examples do prove that they can work as long as the writer is savvy enough to do so. I, on the other hand, don't think I could pull it off.

Ava Jae said...

I think it's definitely safest to avoid them whenever possible. Certainly doesn't hurt to avoid the risk of being passed up over a cliché opening (or anything else).

Robin Red said...

Ava, would you ever consider doing a first-page contest on your blog?

Ava Jae said...

Err first page contest? What would that be?

Robin Red said...

You would pick a few participants to submit the first page of their W.I.P., then post them and maybe have a critique.

Ava Jae said...

Ohhh like critiques! Ok, I understand. Hmm. That's something to consider. I'll definitely think about it. :)

Ava Jae said...

Welcome to the Writability community, Morgan! So glad you enjoyed the post! :)

You're right that it definitely takes something different or special to twist a cliché in a way that works. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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