Avoiding Cliches Like the Plague

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a cliché is (a) a hackneyed phrase or opinion or (b) a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person. I used to have a dictionary of clichés, I think also published by Oxford. The precise purpose of such a reference source eluded me. Perhaps it was so people could check they were not using clichés in their writing or speech.

Because, of course, we must avoid using clichés. In this post I’m not so much concerned with the first definition above. We all recognise these things for what they are pretty quickly:

Not in a million years…

For all intents and purposes…

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks…

As heavy as lead…

Millions of these things are espoused daily and eliminating them isn’t too hard with a careful edit. But today I want to discuss the other definition, which is far more insidious in writing and film. The situational cliché. The story that goes along predictable lines and ends the same way lots of other stories have in the past.

There are lots of these too. I mentioned one years ago when I reviewed a film, Hansel and Gretel. There it was what I called the “too cool to look” hero walk. You know the one. The hero has just beaten the bad guy and lit the fuse for an explosion. As the bomb detonates in the background the hero is seen walking towards the camera, dead-pan expression on his face or maybe lighting a cigarette, not bothering to glance over his shoulder as the explosion blows the final shreds of the villain away. It’s meant to show that the hero is ultra-cool, so cool in fact he can ignore an event that would have everyone else ducking for cover or at least turning around to look at*. So cool he doesn’t need to run.

It’s been done a lot. It’s a cliché. It’s the sort of thing writers need to avoid.

I myself had a recent problem with a cliché ending to a series I’m writing at the moment. My cliché was “the hero sacrifices herself to save the world but isn’t really dead and comes back when everyone least expects it and manages to destroy the bad guy…” I wanted to avoid it and it took a while to do so.

The Star Trek film franchise did this a lot. In The Wrath of Khan Spock is killedHe’s back in the next movie, not really being dead at all of course…well, sort of but not really. Even the Enterprise has been destroyed a number of times but there is always a new one just being completed the crew can transfer to. Handy, that.

There are book series out there that have cliché endings. Lots of them. The Harry Potter series for instance. Harry gets killed and brought back to life because he’s not really dead…well, he is, but not really. In his book Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series, Jim Adam states that J. K. Rowling uses the cliché of the Christ-like sacrifice to save mankind (or in her case Wizard-kind). The hero needs to die, to sacrifice his or her own life, in order to save the lives of others.

That’s been done too.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Christ-like sacrifice, except that it’s been done. A lot.

And this was the problem I had. It took a while to solve it, required me to consult with my editor, and is going to necessitate a heavy re-write of the last part of my final book in the series, but at least I am happier with the ending.

Cliché is an easy trap to fall into. Movies, especially the plethora of prequels and sequels they engender, are full of them. Books, too. A good writer should be careful to spot them as they arise and deal with them before it’s too late.

Damn! Before it’s too late… A cliché!

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* It always strikes me as a bit weird: surely the only person not looking at the explosion is the one who set it off. Think about it. The villain blows something up and the police don’t know who to arrest. Try arresting the only person in the street NOT looking at the explosion!

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

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Slow Explosions

MV5BMjA4MDQwODg2NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTc5ODc2OA@@__V1_SX214_I went to the gym this morning. That’s not the news. I go to the gym two or three times a week. I do things that hurt and make me sweat not because I want to get “ripped” or “shredded” but simply to counter-act the gradual decay my aging body is subject to. You know what I mean.

While I was there I went on the treadmill – you’ve seen one even if you haven’t been on one, that endless belt thing that you trudge along and never get anywhere. I was looking at the TV built into it and there was a promo of a new movie coming out soon. Part of the promo was a shot of the two protagonists dressed in black, walking in slo-mo towards the camera, while behind them is an explosion, also in slo-mo. The classic “hero walks away from endless destruction and certain death” shot. All special effects, of course.

I wasn’t going to give the name of the movie, but it might be better if I did. Hansel and Gretel. I haven’t seen it yet – probably won’t, either. The promo put me off. And I want to explain why.

I don’t have a problem with the re-make of the traditional Hansel and Gretel story. It actually sounds kind of fun. If modern audiences want to see our two little lost waifs all grown up and wielding crossbows and guns and blowing up the bad guys, that’s fine. It’s all fantasy anyway. It’s not like it actually happened.

I don’t have a problem with the violence, either. It’s not like the bad guys are real. They are evil fantasy creatures who don’t exist in the actual world. So, again, it’s all just make-believe.

I don’t have a problem with the horror. Prosthetics are getting really good these days and I like to watch something like this just to admire the make-up work and try to guess which bits are CGI and which are an actor in a mask. It takes a lot of entrails and oozing faces and bulging eyes to get me scared.

What I do have a problem with is that “slow explosion” shot.

I can’t actually remember how many times I’ve seen it before, in how many movies. There is a variation, where the hero leaps towards the camera as the explosion goes off behind him. But this one has them walking away, not even looking back at the huge fireball behind them, smirking at the camera with an “I’m too cool to run” attitude.
It’s a cliché.

Another part of the promo had Hansel dodging an arrow by bending backwards in the classic “defying gravity” way made famous by that other over-the-top cliché extravaganza, The Matrix. Seen that trick before, too. Too many times.

Do the producers have a meeting before they start shooting to think of how many over-used “tough guy” clichés they can jam into the picture? “Well, folks, I think we should do the slow explosion trick and then have them do that Matrix gimmick and then how about some buddy humour and of course we must make sure that every gun never needs reloading and that the bad guys can’t hit the side of a barn door if it was falling on them. That ought to make our film unique!”

How about something new? I don’t mind that the actual explosion is mostly gasoline catching alight, as that looks better on screen than a real explosion does. I don’t mind that if it was real the characters would lose their hearing and be thrown to the ground (if not ripped apart) by the shockwave. It’s pretend, it’s all good fun. I can suspend disbelief as much as anyone.

What I do mind is that this particular thing makes the movie the same as every other movie of the same genre. That’s all. Another good idea made banal by not trying.

So I don’t think I will watch Hansel and Gretel – a pity, really, as it looks like fun.