Writing Tips

Grievous commonalities, a.k.a. clichés

Writing While the Rice Boils assembled an impressive list of genre clichés you should be on the lookout for as a writer. They span every genre from Science Fiction to Romance, and even include ‘Literary Cliches,’ which brings to my next link…

The Millions has a list of clichés you can expect to find (and probably ought to kill with fire) in a literary novel.  ‘Literary Fiction is a Genre: A List’ includes this illuminating illustration:

This is a “nothing happens” book, the former it girl of literary genre fiction. In my classes, I like to describe these stories as: “A man and a woman buy dishes at the store. When they get home, she goes to lie down, barely talking, something unsettling her. A dog barks in the distance. The man starts to put the plates away, and one breaks. The end.” What I love about this kind of narrative is that it’s often deliciously readable. How is that possible? Of course, this kind of narrative is a bit out of vogue — there’s a new it girl on the scene. It’s the same man and woman, but now time travel or zombies or tiny people who live in walnuts are involved. Raymond Carver is to blame for the popularity of the first kind of narrative, with his profound stories of small actions, uninterested as they are in directly exploring the inner lives of characters. That genius George Saunders is to blame for the latter: damn him and his faxing cave man!

Still, despite all that, sometimes clichés are awesome. No really. I’m reading Infinite Jest right now (and probably will be for the foreseeable future) and David Foster Wallace makes brilliant and varied use of a veritable lunacy of clichés. So much so that there’s a Wikipedia entry about it.

A more mundane discussion of the value of clichés can be found at Seth Grodin’s blog, where Seth concludes, “The effective way to use a cliché is to point to it and then do precisely the opposite. Juxtapose the cliché with the unexpected truth of what you have to offer.”


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