Cliches I Have Loved

Recently I was reading Eva Ibbotson’s The Countess Below Stairs as my evening recreational brain-relaxing reading.  I very much like Ibbotson’s clear, graceful prose, and the way she scatters the telling detail through text otherwise unencumbered by the weight of endless scene-setting detail in her historical landscape.

But this book was rough for me in terms of the plotting because the characters have no depth – the good are good and the bad are bad, no gray, no ambivalence;  therefore, there are no plot surprises.  None.

Yes, the young earl with the impoverished estate who has just been released from hospital after injuries received in World War I (now over) has become engaged to one of his nurses, a beautiful heiress who was efficient and orderly as a nurse (her ability for compassion is never mentioned;  red flags raised!) and who is, we learn, an eager adherent of the science of New Eugenics.

Ah-ooo-gah!  Ah-ooo-gah!

(Periscope down!  Dive!  Dive!)

There’s a subplot skewering anti-Semitism, which I appreciated, but whose impact is diluted because in this post-WWI England, evidently only the eugenics people are prejudiced against Jews.  There’s a subplot advocating humane treatment of the mentally disabled, the elderly and infirm, and there’s a sweet crippled premature child whose struggles are thoughtfully touched on.  This is all genuinely touching.

But the story did get a wee bit predictable.  I admit that, in the end, I was disappointed.

Surely I was disappointed because of the cliches.

But then I thought:  Who am I kidding?  Is there a single cliché in this book I haven’t used at one time or another, either consciously with an attempt at a twist, or unconsciously because it’s stuck in my unexamined assumptions box, or just because I liked it and wanted to trot it through its paces?

I know, I know.  Some of you, or perhaps many of you, or perhaps all of you, are better than me in this regard.  But sometimes, you know, I love a cliché.  I love its bright trumpets and rattling drums.  I love the way the shiny length of twirling batons catches in the light.  The music makes me cry.  I am weak.  I am sentimental.  Let me go and wipe away my tears.

I think The Countess Below Stairs might function very well as a comfort book (I have comfort books, like comfort food).  It veered in the direction for me, but ultimately I was disappointed because there were too many cliches too predictably deployed and handled for my taste.  Plot cliches are like a certain style of overly ornate prose, or the lengthy and detailed description of a single silver salver.  You don’t have to have them, and often its best if you don’t, but you can use them if you use them sparingly and at the appropriate time textually.

And, of course, the truth is that many popular and even respected books are popular because they are playing a riff on a cliché that readers respond to.  It’s just that the tune is good, or subtle, or just so much darn fun.  That’s why I generally finish any discussion on “rules” of writing–what to do or what not to do–by saying:  you can do anything as long as you make it work.

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  1. 1. Satima Flavell

    I think your words “too predictably deployed and handled” sum it up, Kate. Clichés become clichés because at heart they speak to us at a very deep level. Trouble is, they are used thoughtlessly, over and over again. Reading many cliché-ridden tales is a bit like listening to ten sopranos in a row, each one singing “One Fine Day” and then “Oh, my beloved father”, and singing them badly.

    But writer – or musician, or artist – who can use a cliché to show us an old truth in a new guise will get my dollars, no worries:-)

  2. 2. S. M. Payne

    I know I go in for a book like the last one I liked, but it’s got to feel different. It’s got to have something about it that makes it memorable (and not for why I didn’t like it).

    Any cliché can be made fresh. The question for me is does it feel right for the story or does it feel like the author didn’t take the time to do it right.

  3. 3. votermom

    The Countess Below The Stairs is probably my daughter’s favorite Ibbotson YA when she decided to borrow all the Ibbotson titles in the library this summer. I like it too — it’s very safe and fairy-tale like. And the four ugly sisters chasing after the handsome driver were fun!
    I find The Morning Gift to be the one that makes me ponder — mainly because I struggle with the conservative gender role idealized in it, I think.
    Things become cliches because they are true so often. I like it when a writer can use a cliche and reveal the truth at the heart of it.

  4. 4. Madeleine Robins

    Okay, you had me at “Down, periscope!”

    Stripped of value judgments (but what fun is that?) a cliché is just shorthand. And shorthand can be really useful to a writer and a reader; it can sketch in something about a character or situation without belaboring it. But like many labor-saving devices it can be over-used and wear the reader out (or weaken the writer’s plotting and prose muscles).

    I have to watch my own tendency to delight in turning clichés on their heads for the sake of doing so (oh, look! the brisk, competent eugenics-loving heiress knows she is infertile, and her attempts to found a society for the decapitation of red-headed babies are really a self-loathing gesture of contempt for all fecund parents). That can be its own trap.

    I love clichés like I love chocolate–too much and I start feeling slightly ill, but just enough and I’m happy and full of endorphins.

  5. 5. Tom Gallier

    Eeks! I took out all of the cliches from my Big Fat Fantasy, and now I have a short story.

    That ain’t gonna work, bubba.

  6. 6. Kate Elliott

    Satima, now I can’t get the image (aural image???) of ten sopranos in a row out of my brain. It’s like a subtype of horror film!

    Tom: Ha!

  7. 7. Kate Elliott

    “The question for me is does it feel right for the story”

    Yeah, exactly. A writer who is being lazy or who isn’t thinking hard about what is going on (or who is very inexperienced) may insert cliches because s/he thinks “they need to go there now to be like these other books.”

    Yet a novel like Twilight, which I can’t read, works precisely because of its cliches, which make it a comfort book for its readers.

  8. 8. Kate Elliott

    I like Ibbotson and think she is a very good writer. Maybe if I’d been in a different mood The Countess Below Stairs would have worked for me. I know other readers who find it a comfort book. The book by her about the hatmaker in Vienna (?) which I read some years ago I liked quite a lot.

  9. 9. Kate Elliott

    Mad – yeah – you should write something about cliche being shorthand. That’s a useful craft consideration.

  10. 10. cedunkley

    So, how much of a difference is there between a cliche and a trope?

  11. 11. S.C. Butler

    I don’t mind cliches, if they’re done well. You can get away with just about anything if you do it well.

  12. 12. Kate Elliott

    A cliche and a trope? Hmm. Good question. Maybe when I’m talking about cliches I’m really talking about tropes.

    Sam – yeah – really – as long as you can make it work it doesn’t matter how many rules it breaks. Or doesn’t break.

  13. 13. OtterB

    In my daughter’s high school English class, they were reading Poe (I think) and some of the students were complaining that it was full of cliches. The teacher pointed out that it’s not a cliche if *you’re the one who invented it.*

    In addition to cliches and tropes, I was wondering about the distinction between a cliche and an archetype. (Taking a shot at answering my own question) Maybe the archetype resonates with us at a deep level, and the cliche is the surface view. Something that’s too cliched never goes deep enough to earn its emotion.

  14. 14. Kate Elliott

    Ha. Yeah. Like that Shakespeare dude: he’s full of cliches!

    Maybe it’s also in how it’s used, like someone being sad and its raining outside. Done poorly, it comes across as a cliche. Done well, it seems natural and even inevitable to the mood and setting?

  15. 15. JayBee

    I think of tropes as each possessing an individual energetic charge. The Eavesdropping trope, for instance, is mostly a lazy way for a writer to impart information to the protag, and has a low energy. Makes for a dull scene.

    The Voyeur trope, on the other hand, no matter how often it’s been used, still has power if skillfully deployed, especially if the spied-upon scene is transgressive or revelatory.

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Author Information

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.

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