I react badly (but quietly!) when someone says, "You shouldn't start your story with the power going out; it's a cliche." Or, you shouldn't start with waking up in a dark room. Or with a funeral. Don't write a story about VR; it's been done (like everything else we might write about). Or whatever.
I don't like it because it feels like a straitjacket.
Yet there are things that I say, oh, no, not again. Connie Willis's book Passages had the Titanic prominently featured. It was a good book anyway, and it turned out there was a reason for picking the Titanic, but . . . that was my reaction: not again!
My thought is, go ahead and show me a sinking ship; just don't make it the Titanic again. Let the MC wake up to start the story, if that's when the action starts; just don't make it Bull Murray in Puxhatawney, PA, again. Show me FTL travel, but if you aren't Paramount, don't call it "warp."
I can think of some other things-we-see-a-lot-of that I don't like, but it's because of a structural problem.
Professor speaks in class about the social issue the story is built on. Problem is if there's no other reason for the classroom scene. It's fine if the story is about teaching. But if it's just to introduce the concept, just tell us, and let's start with an environment that isn't famous for putting people to sleep.
Character drives in rain or snow, her mind ever going back to that horrible, horrible moment . . . problem there is starting in the wrong place. That, plus showing us emotion without telling us first what it's about.
Character wakes up, still miserable because of that horrible, horrible moment ... same problem.
I'm not sure to what extent the slush readers read before giving up because it's clichéd, but I think that you only have a paragraph or two to convince him you're different from the dozen horrible stories he gets every ten minutes. I think a simple way to go about it is to give some details that break the clichéd mould and make the reader understand that this is not this tired old scene. But I agree, most of the time it's more a problem of starting the story in the wrong place. When I read about MC waking up, there'd better be a damn good reason for starting at this point, and not after he's brushed his teeth and had breakfast. I do roll my eyes sometimes, but it's more at those stories opening with loads of action before I even care about the characters (yes, Emma is fighting demons and they both went down the cliff, but why the hell should I care? I don't know Emma and for all I know she's worse than the demons ) My two cents.
Posts: 1075 | Registered: Sep 2004
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It's not generally the cliches that are the problem. It's the intention.
So stories frequently start with the character waking up, or in a dark room, or waking up in a dark room, because the writer doesn't know how to start the story. So she uses a ready-made start. This is fine as long as it's cut later, but most writers don't even realize what they've done and the scene stays to bog everything else down.
The same with the professor. You want to lecture your readers, so where do you put your characters? In a classroom. *wry grin* A lot of cliches are there because they've been used as unconscious or semi-conscious projection by thousands of writers over the past few hundred years. If you want to use similar situations, you have to examine your reasons thoroughly. If the scenes really belong, it should be obvious (and the scene will be readable.) If, on the other hand, you find yourself thinking "But how else would I start the story?" or "But how else would I get all this information in?" then congratulations: you've written a cliche scene. Time to break out the scissors.
[This message has been edited by KatFeete (edited November 19, 2005).]
Theres nothing wrong with a cliche as long as you do it differently enough, soon enough that the cliche is forgotten or not noticed.
No matter what you write, some part of it will be cliche. How cliche, the good guys won after a struggle which they nearly lost but didn't.
Really, the problem arises when its a bad cliche used because of lack of actual imagination.
But, the opening cliche's are the worst. They are a definite indicator of the talespinners capabilities and the potential for the story. If you use a cliche too soon without distinguishing it as sufficiently fresh, the readers will not go on.
Publishers, upon seeing a cliche opening, will stop cold unless you have already hooked them.
Chances are, if you are starting where the character is waking up or where the character decides to look around at his surroundings, you are not starting at the action, but starting decidedly before the action.
Unless the actual action of the plot wakes your character, start with them awake. The real action will usually start when the MC is aware and if they just woke up, that hasn't happened yet.
If something woke them up, well, then it has. Even so, you can just as easily start with. The loud noise coming from the kitchen worried Joe Hero. as Joe Hero woke from the crashing sound in the kitchen.
99% of cliches are there because a bad writer can only write what he knows and we all know cliches.
1% of the cliches are there because they are so well done that they are not really cliche.
You are setting yourself up for an uphill battle against higher standards if you insist on trying to break through a cliche barrier.
As I recall, the term "cliche" dates from the primitive days of newspaper printing, when type was set by hand. Any large block that was pre-set, like an ad or a picture, that could be dropped in without additional effort, was called a "cliche." (I believe the term "stereotype" dervies from similar sources.)
Alas that I can't properly punctuate "cliche" here...
...hey, if I knew how to work everything on my computer, it'd make my life a lot easier. I still haven't figured out how to relog onto this site so I'm "permanently logged in," but I have memorized my password...
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I think an important thing is that cliches come in and out, so it's important not to post the cliche prohibitions in the same part of your brain as the deadly composition errors.
Posts: 366 | Registered: Sep 2006
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Like I've said elsewhere, what I don't know about computers would fill a printed manual. I looked for the keyboard controls, and found some of them (I guess), but couldn't (yet) figure out what setting it's on or how to change it. I also used to have a list of how to get special characters out of my keyboard or with my mouse, but it's buried somewhere under the clutter of my desk and office and I can't use it if I can't find it.
Of course, this is all off the topic at hand, and I neglected to put my opinion in my original post...Cliches (however punctuated) are essentially turns of character or situation that are so familiar that you and any readers will know them and recognize them immediately, and probably be bored by them. They have their uses, and somebody may be able to ring a new change on them, but they're something to be looked for in one's work and avoided...
[edited to put the word "don't" between "I" and "know" in the first sentence---a stupid mistake if there ever was one---plus the opportunity to insert a couple more sentences.]
[This message has been edited by Robert Nowall (edited November 22, 2005).]
I use the ASCII Code for putting in accents and what not. I use this site to find the ASCII code I need. Then to type it, you hold down the ALT key on your keyboard and type the three digit code.
ALT + 130 = é
As for clichéd problems, I seem to be running into more than my fair share these days. I don't think it's some of the plot devices Wbriggs mentioned, but just my writing in general. It seems like all the rejections I've gotten recently are saying nice story but I found the ending predictable or unoriginal or clichéd, etc. I'm not sure why, because I wouldn't write it if I thought it was an overdone idea or whatever. Perhaps part of the problem is that the stories can seem like they are supposed to have twist endings, even though I haven't entirely meant for them to have twists.