Despite what Joel Grey sang, Life is not a cabaret, old chum. Life is a cliché. Any student of history will back me up on this. Humankind’s wheels remain hopelessly rutted in the same tracks millennium after millennium. Sure the scenery changes some, and we do make occasional veers here and there, but those minor course corrections only tend to widen the ruts without ever getting us out of them. And why should it be any different? Humankind hasn’t evolved appreciably over the last few thousand years, so why should our behavior, attitudes, rituals change? Which brings me to the subject of creative writing (Wow! I’m still the master of the smooth segue).
Truth be told, in today’s writing salons, the cliché is as revered almost as much as it is reviled. While low-level editors experience apoplexy at the term ‘smooth as silk’, the cigar-chomping maven in the corner office fifteen floors up is inking a fat deal for the publication rights to the next saga featuring beautiful, skinny, vampires-on-cell-phones. Which, in turn, will perpetuate the next tidal wave of beautiful, skinny, vampire saga manuscripts our low-level friend on the lower floor will be forced to wade through. And heaven help the upstart with temerity enough to recommend something different—unless it has to do with wizards, or serial killers, or beautiful, skinny wizard serial killers who turn into wolves every full moon. (Pop Quiz: How many clichés can you spot in the paragraph above?)
Yes, I’m being (slightly) facetious.
I read a fair amount of work by inexperienced writers exploring their nascent talents. In discussing their work, I have to force myself to come up with synonyms for ‘cliché’ because, well, ‘cliché’ has become cliché. Cliché genres, cliché plots, cliché characters, cliché mannerisms, and plain old cliché cliches.
But all isn’t lost (another cliché). As I alluded to up top, humans are prone to a finite number of behaviors and passions, so similar stories are bound to crop up culture by culture. And we all know, once a story is told, it will be retold ‘til it’s a bald retread. Witness Rocky. (Even mentioning Rocky in this context probably constitutes a cliché). But shouldn’t these stories be retooled at the same time? Are we such a dull race that we insist on chewing the same gristle (cliché) over and over? Maybe not.
If we can’t be totally original, there is no reason we can’t be innovative. Star Wars took the tired western film genre, retooled it with ray guns and X-Wing Fighters and birthed a whole new … well, cliché. But, hey, always give kudos to the innovators. At the same time, though, do your damnedest not to jump on every newest bandwagon because you’ll just end up being another flute in the crowd (not a cliché). And whenever you find yourself in a crowd, you can bet your middle-aged spread (semi-cliché), you’ve become part of a cliché.
Listen, clichés can be made to work for you, too. The grizzled old sheriff is a familiar cliché (redundant), right? So why not turn the cliché on its head and make your sheriff young and gay and prone to quoting ‘50s Beat poetry? No spoof, either. You can make this guy just as serious as (no, I won’t say a heart attack) _________ . (Fill in the blank with your own original analogy.)
‘Pet peeve’ is a cliché, right? Well, I once wrote about a character who kept a pet cat named Peeve. See? Cliches can be used to advantage when you’re innovative enough to give them a twist.
Allow a character to use the old saw, ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ then let him add, especially if you got good aim’.
All I’m trying to say folks, is be sensitive, be aware of clichés. Big and small. Don’t write ‘em without giving them your own innovative twist. Why borrow clichés, when you can create them?
ABOUT LEE ALLEN HILL
STORIES BY LEE ALLEN HILL
POEMS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
ESSAYS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
COFFEE HOUSE CHATTER