Thursday, August 18, 2022

Reader, I married/murdered/misunderstood him, by Catriona

Q: Clich├ęs in our fiction. Are they universalities worth exploring or simply lazy shortcuts?

I don't mind a plot cliche in the least. Recently, when I thought I had gone to see the Oscar-bothering and deeply miserable Power of the Dog, but realised I was actually watching Dog, starring Channing Tatum, the galactic level of cliche in the plot was fine by me.

To give you an idea, in case you . . . tried to see it and ended up watching Power of the Dog instead, let's say . . . CT is a veteran with PTSD. Lulu the dog is also a veteran with PTSD. They are both pretty savage and unstable. Lulu is going to be destroyed, but first she is required (by a grieving family) to attend the memorial service for her late handler, which happens to be on the other side of the country. CT agrees to drive Lulu to the service, then deliver her for euthanasia, after which he can carry out his plan to fall apart completely and forever. 

Guess. What. Happens.

And it didn't matter. 

I'll go even further than "It didn't matter" actually. It would have been a dereliction of duty if anything else had happened. There was a tacit contract between the film-makers and the audience that we all knew what was going to happen at the end of this film.

(I remember being in the audience when that contract broke down once. It was the Gillian Anderson adaptation of The House of Mirth. I knew what I was getting - Edith Wharton. But a row of ladies behind me had seen the costumes on the poster and come along for a RomCom with bustles. As the end credits rolled, one of them said, "Eeh, I'm sorry about that, girls. I had no idea.")

I've made that contract with readers a time or two - promised a cliche and delivered on it. In Come To Harm, there are creepy butchers, unaccountably secretive about their sausage recipe, happy to give young women free accommodation in the flat above the shop . . .

In The Reek of Red Herrings, there are creepy amateur taxidermists, unaccountably secretive about what's in their museum, happy to give young women employment in their home . . .

Far from such plot cliches being lazy shortcuts, I reckon they prevent laziness. If your story isn't original, then you better make sure something else is, right? The characters, the setting, the style, the pacing, the humour . . . as many elements as possible need to be stellar if the book's going to shine.

Where I do have a problem with cliches is in the physical description of characters. Not what the characters look like - they look like people; and people look like anything between Lupita Nyong'o and Steve Buscemi - but in how we're told what characters look like. If I never again read chapter one of a first-person narrative where the voice character looks at themself in a mirror and has detailed thoughts about what they see? Happy days.

A. No one does that. We know what we look like. And B. even if we did, it wouldn't be:

'I sighed in exasperation at my unruly auburn curls and the dusting of freckles on my tip-tilted nose. I smiled and noticed the way the single dimple on my left cheek winked back at me."

I hate her already. No, it would be:

'I tried to concentrate solely on my teeth while I flossed them, but I could still see all three of my chins and my granny's eyebags. I remembered believing, up to last year, that I had a great complexion, then finding out that in fact my eyesight was shot. That first morning looking in the mirror with my reading glasses on could still send me straight to the vodka.'

But that's just me. The pet hate I mean; not the chins/eyebags/vodka (although my God those magnifying make-up mirrors you get in posh hotel bathrooms . . .). Countless others probably don't mind that chapter one bathroom mirror cliche. Like I don't mind the phrase "make a mental note", which causes a writer pal of mine to close a book and take it to the Goodwill donation site. I don't even mind when someone lets go of a breath they didn't know they were holding. 

I did stop reading a novel recently when a character felt a shudder that started in their tail bone and carried on up their spine until it settled in the back of their skull as a tension headache. That's not a thing. That's so bonkers it'll never end up as a cliche.



Susan C Shea said...

I'm giggling and, simultaneously panicked that one of those writing cliches might be mine. Just the other day, my editor suggested I give readers as bit more of my protagonist's physical description early on and I am looking around, not for a mirror but for someone she spends time with to say, "Those freckles are adorable, and that dimple..."

Catriona McPherson said...

It is a problem . . .

Josh Stallings said...

I adore your way with words. “a RomCom with bustles.” Brilliant.
"“If your story isn't original, then you better make sure something else is, right?" YES! And There is very very little new in stories we need to work on the other elements.

My first book has the lead character praising himself in a mirror. He did find himself greatly wanting. And it was while he was getting a sad lonely lap dance. So half points for some originality?

“I don't mind the phrase "make a mental note.”” - Writing about the 70’s I used. “She searched her mental rolodex.” Sure that threw a few of my younger readers.

THANK YOU Catriona for yet another funny and thoughtful post.

James W. Ziskin said...

Great post. And I share Susan’s panic. And Josh’s fondness for “mental notes.”