Clichéd or Okay?
NEOPIA CENTRAL - If you’re interested in writing for the Neopian Times, there
are two pieces of advice that you’re likely to hear at one point or another--
though usually not at the same time, for reasons that should soon become obvious.
The first piece of advice is: “Be original.” And the second? “There are no new
ideas.” So what is a new writer, or even an old writer, to do? When it seems
as if everything under the sun has already been written, how can one get started
without writing something that will be branded unoriginal or even worse… clichéd?
Ah yes, “cliché.” It’s a label that gets tossed around quite a bit, and that
everyone seems anxious to avoid having applied to their own stories. But are
clichés really so bad? Is something that might be labeled a cliché necessarily
so? And is there nothing that can be done to redeem an idea that’s been written
about many times before? No way to make it acceptable, interesting, an enjoyable
read… not clichéd at all?
One important thing to remember is that while many people have an instant negative
reaction to the idea of a cliché, when really questioned on the subject, most
will admit that there are some conditions that can make even an overused idea
into a good read.
The first of these conditions is that the story is well-written. If your writing
itself-- your word choice, sentence structure, how the story flows and progresses--
is easy and enjoyable to read, even the most clichéd plot will often be forgotten,
or even overlooked entirely. So, no matter what you’re writing, work to make
it the very best it can be! Proofread and edit your story more than once, and
read it aloud to catch errors or awkward wording that you might not otherwise
notice. You can also ask friends, family or teachers to offer advice to help
you improve. It may seem like a lot of effort, but it will pay off with a story
that you can be proud of and that your readers will appreciate as well.
The second condition that can make what might otherwise be dismissed as a cliché
into a story that will interest readers involves realizing that one of those
sayings that I offered at the beginning of this article shouldn’t have been
just “There are no new ideas.” It should have been: “There are no new ideas,
just new ways of writing them.” If you can find some way to make a clichéd idea
“your own,” to give it an interesting twist, a different perspective, or even
simply unique characters to act it out, then you may just have solved the paradoxical
problem presented by the two contradictory pieces of advice stated at the beginning
of this article. I know, easier said than done. But in the rest of the article,
I’ll be addressing some of the areas of story writing in which clichés commonly
pop up and offering some suggestions for how to deal with them, work around
them, avoid them, improve on them… and maybe even just use them!
There are certain types of plots that seem to appear over and over again in
the Neopian Times. There’s the classic quest story, the “how so-and-so got painted”
story, the school stories dealing with popularity and bully problems, and the
most infamous of them all: the pound, or adoption, story. All are topics that
are liable to get your story labeled a cliché before it’s even been read. But
should that keep you from writing one? Not necessarily.
Clichés become clichés for a reason. That’s right-- become. What we
consider to be clichés now weren’t always clichés. Once upon a time, there had
never been a pound story, and the idea of a quest for a magical item was a new
and original concept. So why did such ideas become overused and clichéd? Because
they’re not bad ideas! They appealed to many writers and many readers, and so,
they got written about over and over until… they became known as clichés. That
doesn’t mean that they suddenly, automatically became bad ideas. Undoubtedly,
they still appeal to many people, and you shouldn’t stop yourself from writing
what appeals to you. If you’re drawn to an idea as a writer, chances are there
will be plenty of readers who will be drawn to that idea as well, even as there
are some who will label it as a cliché and not look any further. You can’t please
everyone, but if you can please yourself with what you’re writing, your enjoyment
will likely show through and make for a good read for those who are willing
to give it a chance.
Take the pound story, probably the most-used plot in the Neopian Times. Why
is this? As I said above, clichés become clichés-- they get used over and over
again-- because they appeal to many people. When it comes to the pound story,
this is because many of us have adopted a pet, and it’s a touching experience.
The themes that often accompany pound stories-- themes of abandonment, redemption,
finding a home, learning to love, going from sadness to happiness-- are all
compelling themes, so of course many people would want to write these types
of stories. Undoubtedly, many people want to read about them as well. If you
choose to write a pound story, some people will dismiss it offhand simply because
it is a pound story. But don’t let that stop you. If you think you have something
to say, then say it, and don’t worry about whether it’s been done before.
The same goes for all of the “clichéd” plots. All of them have appealed
to writers many times over because they are themes that we can relate to in
one way or another. And because of this, they will continue to appeal to many
writers and readers even though they’ve been written about many times. But,
it is good to try to make your story stand out from the crowd, no matter what
you’re writing about. Make your characters unique, interesting, and believable--
characters that your readers can relate to emotionally, and who they will therefore
cheer on through whatever trials they face, whether clichéd or not. Work to
make your writing as good as it can be and develop your own personal style.
Think about whether you can throw in any interesting twists, new ideas, or different
perspectives that may not have been used much before within the frame of the
otherwise commonplace plot. With these elements and others, a story with an
overused plot can still shine.
Deus Ex Machina
As long as we’re talking about overused plots, we should address an oft-used
plot device as well-- the deus ex machina. A deus ex machina is basically a
character (or sometimes an object or event) that appears suddenly and unexpectedly
in order to resolve a story, usually pulling the main characters out of a situation
in which they would otherwise have been doomed. For example, if your characters
are stuck in Dr. Sloth’s secret lair, literally up against a wall, and about
to be blasted to smithereens by Neopia’s favorite villain, and the Space Faerie
suddenly appears out of nowhere and saves the day… then the Space Faerie is
a deus ex machina, and your characters should be thanking their lucky stars.
But should a deus ex machina be avoided at all costs? Not necessarily. Some
of the greatest authors of all time have employed this device to resolve their
stories. But there are ways that you can use the deus ex machina to make it
seem less like a convenient cliché and more like an interesting plot point.
Don’t just accidentally write your poor characters into a corner so that the
only way that they can get out of their situation is for you to conveniently
drop the Faerie Queen or Kauvara into the story. Your readers will see right
through that and probably be quite dissatisfied with your easy resolution. If
you find yourself doing that often, try planning out your story ahead of time,
so that you don’t end up leading your characters into a situation where they
can’t do anything to solve their own problems and you’re forced to use a deus
ex machina to save the day.
Successfully using a deus ex machina also requires planning ahead. Specifically,
it requires foreshadowing. The main problem with the typical deus ex machina
is that it appears out of nowhere. If Fyora has had nothing at all to do with
your story up to this point, and then she suddenly pops up in order to pull
your characters out of trouble, her appearance will seem artificial and convenient.
However, if you foreshadow, you can avoid this problem. Perhaps earlier in the
story, the characters meet Fyora or reveal that they are friends with her; perhaps
they do a favor for her, or even just walk by her in the street and catch her
notice. Then, when Fyora appears later in the story, it will seem more realistic;
she has already had something to do with these characters before, so it makes
sense, rather than simply seeming convenient, that she has showed up to help
Another way to use a deus ex machina without it seeming quite so clichéd is
to use a different deus ex machina than the usual suspects. Countless stories
have had the day saved by the faeries or Kauvara. But how many have ended with
Sidney playing the hero? Or how about the Snowager? Or Hubert the Hot Dog Salesman?
Even Sloth, one of the most-used characters in the Times, would seem new and
interesting cast as a deus ex machina. With all of the characters that are available
to us all over the site, the possibilities are endless, and wouldn’t it be much
more interesting seeing how these less-used characters could resolve a story
than reading about another faerie using her magic to help everyone out?
Most Neopians are familiar with all of the typical species stereotypes. Lennies
are smart. Skeiths are mean. Unis are vain. Shoyrus are brave. Lupes are noble
(and hate Chias). The list goes on. Most will also advise that you avoid using
these stereotypes when writing a story. There’s nothing wrong with that advice.
The only problem is when it gets taken to extremes and we end up with something
that I will call an “anti-stereotype.” With everyone striving to avoid creating
stereotypical characters, suddenly stories are filled with anti-stereotypical
characters who are the complete opposite-- dim-witted Lennies, kind-hearted
Skeiths, humble Unis, cowardly Shoyrus, Chia-loving Llupes, and so on. And then,
these anti-stereotypes become just as overused, clichéd and two-dimensional
as the stereotypes that their authors were trying to overcome.
The solution to this problem is to not worry about stereotypes. Instead, concentrate
on creating interesting, complex, three-dimensional characters and you’ll find
that the problem of stereotyping falls by the wayside. Take, for example, Monokeras:
a slightly cynical golden Uni who fought in the Tyrannian War shortly after
his creation and now uses the magical skills he developed at that time to solve
crimes-- for a price…. Does it matter that he also possesses the typical Uni
trait of vanity? No, because instead of being the one defining trait of his
personality, it is just one small trait amongst many others that all put together
make up a complex, interesting and unique character.
The problem with stereotypes and anti-stereotypes arises when they are the
only traits displayed by characters. Any character who has only one facet to
his or her personality is bound to seem clichéd and uninteresting to your readers.
But by giving your characters depth and making them come alive through your
description and portrayal of them-- their pasts, their actions, the way that
they interact with others, their dialogue, their thoughts-- you nullify the
problem of stereotyping. And you offer your readers someone that they can love
(or hate), sympathize with (or be aggravated by), and most importantly, believe--
whether the character has one or two “stereotypical” traits or not.
You know what they say: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! If you’ve got a strong
funny bone, forget about trying to avoid or overcome clichés. Instead, embrace
them! Clichés, especially if you exaggerate them, can be a great way to add
humor to a story or article. When trying to make your readers laugh, often the
best thing to do is to turn all the rules of writing on their heads. Introduce
obviously-stereotypical (or anti-stereotypical) characters, put them on a zany
quest for a useless item to save the universe, and have Fyora (accidentally)
drop in to save the day, making all their efforts pointless. Of course, clichés
aren’t the only avenue to take if you want to write something humorous, but
they can certainly be good for a laugh or two if you understand them well enough
to know how to exploit them.
Ultimately, while you should be aware of clichés, you shouldn’t worry about
them too much. You can’t please everyone, so you should concentrate first and
foremost on pleasing yourself. If you don’t care about what you’re writing,
you won’t enjoy it; if you do care, it’ll show through and your readers will
likely enjoy reading your work as well. So if there’s something that you really
want to write, don’t stop yourself because of cliché concerns-- just write it!
You can do many things to make an idea that has perhaps become a bit stale from
overuse seem new and fresh and stand out from the crowd, and the first and most
important step in that process is just to love what you are writing. Good luck!