Oct 4, 2010

In Defence of the Cliche...

by Nikki Logan

When has a word concept ever been such an anathema as the dreaded cliché? Writers fear it, readers bristle at it. Yet it’s often confused with its cousin, stereotype, and generally misused and misunderstood.

The word itself has come to mean something that is overused and trite. Written, visual, aural. Shutters banging against a house wall during a storm or a ticking clock to build suspense – aural cliché. A photograph of a beautiful lake framed in the space between two trees – visual cliché. (Can’t tell you how many pictures in my 'Europe 1990' photo album are framed exactly like that. I thought I was being terribly arty and clever. Erm…not so much.)

Literally speaking, the term cliché originates in the French printing industry. Back in the day when finger-stained typesetters laid out the tiny metal letters of a written sentence in racks to be slotted into printing presses, coated with ink and then transferred as print on paper, some words, sentences and phrases were more oft used than others. Phrases like ‘he said’, ‘couldn’t believe his eyes’, or ‘non-non, Monsieur, we will be caught for certain’ were common enough to be permanently cast as a single piece and kept aside for repeat use.

According to the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, the word actually comes from the sound made when ‘the matrix is dropped into molten metal to make a printing plate.’


Tssss…. Go on, say it out loud. You know you want to.

Anyway… back then a cliché was a good thing. A time-and-effort saving thing that helped revolutionise the already revolutionary print industry. But today, the poor old cliché has a bad rap. It’s equated with laziness, lack of imagination, absence of new thought. But the reality is that it’s still an efficient way of communicating simple concepts. Like texting, a kind of print shorthand. It’s not lazy, per se. Just…expedient.

Cliché is also often mislabeled and applied to concepts that more rightly belong under that other printing term, stereotype. Again from the printing industry and refers to a phrase/sentence that warrants a whole duplicate copy of the original typeplate, presumably to ward against wear because it was used so very heavily and often. A stereotype is a cliché all grown up. Where a plot or a situation or a setting has become so overused it has become commonly and immediately recognized.

The other woman. The bandana-wearing train-robber on horseback. The frustrated spinster with nine cats devouring romance novels.

Oh… pardon me, my subtext is showing…

Therein lies the most important part of the enemy we know as cliché/stereotype. The only thing technically wrong with either is that they have become ‘common’. So the first person to write it is an artist, everyone else is a thief.

Sure, I don’t want to read a book laden with clichéd phrases or scenes. Yuk-o. But similarly, I don’t particularly enjoy (or even fall for) books where it’s obvious the author has gone out of their way to rewrite clichéd sentences or concepts ‘freshly’. The chances of most of them being able to write something that no-one has ever used before isn’t high and so the book ends up wobbling on its skinny little knees with the burden of page-after-page of overly complicated, metaphorical, granite-based equivalents.

Kind of like that one.

Romance, as a rule, turns successfully on the most clichéd of literary clichés: the Happy Ending. Successfully to the tune of billions of dollars a year. So, clearly there is still a place in our lives for immediately recognizable literary themes like boy-meets-girl and happy-ever-after. Just with moderation. We can still read and love rags-to-riches stories, we can still put a swarthy sheik on the keeper shelf, we can still shed a tear over an Ugly Duckling modernization.

In a genre which unashamedly—in fact, proudly!—targets the common man (or woman, in this case) in volume, why are we so hung up on the presence of the occasional cliché?

Embrace the cliché. Learn to love the cliché. Don’t sacrifice to it on the alter of good taste, certainly, but don’t fear the cliché. Fearing it gives it power.

After all, it’s just a bunch of letters in a drawer in France.

You tell me... Do you slip into a familiar story theme like a comfy pair of slippers or do you like something out-of-the-box every time?

(PS: My latest release is out now in the UK in print and ebook and it's partnered with the wonderful Barbara McMahon. A hot firefighter and scorching ex Special Services operative under one cover!! Tsssss!! Grab it now or wait until January for the US release.)


  1. Great post, Nikki! I read a lot of Regencies, and I have to say that I enjoy it when authors use Regency-era cliches and stereotypes. If, however, I find a modern cliche in a Regency, that jars me right out of the book!

  2. Thanks for the post, Nikki - I love learning about the origin of words!

  3. Emily - see for me (fairly new to historical) cliches just arent. They're new and fresh :) But you raise an excellent point about an era being defined by its cliches.

    Rachel - I know! Words are just plain interesting. ;)

  4. Ooooh, I'm like Rach, love finding out the origin of words. Thanks for sharing, Nikki.

  5. *waves* Hi Anita - you're very welcome.

  6. Hi Nikki,
    As a reader cliches didn't bother me, it was only as I learned how to write that they started to jump out at me...
    Some cliches are damn good!!! LOL (Though I must stop relying on: Every fibre of her being)

  7. Fab post, Nikki! I love tried-and-true plots -- an ugly duckling story will get me every time, can read Cinderella stories till the cows come home. Oh I could just go on and on... Yep, I'm one of those comfy slipper kind of cats :-)

    LOL, Mel -- every fibre of her being made it into my first draft today too!

  8. What *does* that mean, Mel...every fibre of her being? Are we talking muscle fibres? Cells? I use it too. And now I'll chuckle every time I do.

    And you've summed it up beautifully - some cliche's are damned good :) And others are just plain funny.

  9. Michelle - I like to get halfway through a book and then go 'oh!! This is Ugly Duckling' or 'oh oh!! Beauty and the Beast'. There's a difference between 'classic' and 'cliche' I think. And (if I don't say so myself) Harlequin Romance does the best twists on classic themes, I reckon.

    I can feel an ugly duckling story coming on... ;)

  10. Embracing the cliche Nikki!

    Thanks for a very informative blog post (and as usual I'm fashionably late!)