Why do writers keep committing clichés?

Syfy (I still find it hard to write that instead of SciFi) recently debuted a new show called Continuum; the briefest possible summary I can come up with is that it starts in 2077 and a bunch of anarchists send themselves back in time to the present day (well, almost – 2012, an interesting decision), and a cop, trying to stop them, is whisked back with them.

There’s a reason I bring this new show up in a post I’ve titled “Why do writers keep committing clichés?” – in fact, it triggered the post. It wasn’t a bad show – it wasn’t spectacular, either, but it had some good things. I will probably keep watching if I remember. But the thing that stuck with me, which I remember even though every single character’s name has vanished from my memory along with half the plot, which I will remember even after I’ve forgotten about the show, was a little incident at the beginning.


I say “little incident”, but in any story, especially an hour-long television slot (which translates to, what, 42 minutes after commercials?), every moment must be made to count. I think it’s a reason the whole “Chekhov’s gun” thing is so important – if you’re using up screen time, or pages, telling me about this, there needs to be payoff by the time the story ends. There needs to be a reason.

So, the little incident: The cop I mentioned in the first paragraph is a woman in a surprisingly traditional-seeming home: it’s her and her husband (male partner, anyway) and their little boy. She is, as cops often are, called unexpectedly in to work, and her son pads out in his jammies to see her off, and he holds something out to her: one of his little toy soldiers, in case she “needs backup”. And I said to the tv, or the dog, or myself (whatever’s sanest): “She’s never going to see him again.”

zuzu-and-george-baileyKeep in mind, if you would, that I’d never heard of this show before I saw it listed On Demand, and decided on the spur of the moment to watch, partly because last night was the last night it was available. I knew nothing about the plot, the setting, or anything else. But that little touch of domesticity, that little heart-string-tugging moment, was a complete tell, like the poker player who taps his fingers when he’s got a good hand. I’ve seen it before, so often: it’s a compact moment to give the audience a quick shot of all that a main character has to lose, and what she will lose, and why she needs to get it back (or get revenge for having lost it, depending on circumstances). Also, they always seem to provide the main character with something to take from a pocket and finger at pensive moments, a tangible reminder of her motivation: think Zuzu’s petals.

To me, a scene like this, which prompts me to accurately predict major plot points, is a bad scene. (Not Zuzu’s petals, though. Even clichés can be done well.)

This got me started thinking about all the other oh-no-don’t-do-that-dammit clichés I’ve come across; a few spring to mind, and I can only imagine I’ll be expanding the list as time goes by.

1) The heroine suddenly feels nauseated, early and often.

Just once, I’d like to have that mean the heroine is dying of some horrible disease rather than that she needs to count on her fingers back to her last period. There has to be another way to play the realization of pregnancy.

2) In related nausea: A main character becomes so violently seasick on even a short water voyage that s/he is like to die, or simply wants to.

I don’t really understand why this one is so popular; why does there always have to be someone losing his or her cookies (all of the cookies eaten in the past year) in the background of nearly every boat ride ever? What does that add to anything? Is it meant as comic relief, as the hale and hearty companions of the nauseated one chuckle about his incapacitation and avoid his close and smelly cabin at all costs?

3) It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a party goes out to hunt boar in a book, there will be blood shed, and not just the boar’s.

It’s amazing. I have no doubt wild boar are formidable; there are tusks (tushes?) and they’re fast and there usually seem to be young boar being protected, and there’s always the added enticement for an author of describing the angry/infuriated/cold/mean/flaming little piggy eyes of the boar that attacks. It’s all very picturesque. But it’s also been done. Over and over and over. The minute anyone even simply says the word “boar” in a book, I sigh, and wait for it, and knock a star off the book’s rating, knowing for certain that the very least a dog is going to be horribly killed, but more likely it will be a named character maimed or killed. I’ve never kept track of the phenomenon; one day I would love to go through my books and make a list of fatal-and-near-fatal boar hunts. (I just read one in The Bull-Slayer a month or so ago.) It may not even be that there are dozens of them or anything – just that every single one has much the same outcome.

There are more. I know there are more. They’ll come to me. Or, if you think of one that I forgot, please leave a comment!

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3 Responses to Why do writers keep committing clichés?

  1. tmso says:

    Interesting about the boar hunt. Frankly, I have been out boar hunting (long long time ago) and no bloodshed occurred (either from the boar or the hunters), but it was scary. Maybe, pigs are just scary? Maybe a metaphor for a more primitive human? If we were in Africa, would all our stories have monkey hunts gone bad?

    And, yes, there are hundreds of these story cliches, but I can’t think of any at the moment either. Fantasy and science fiction are full of ’em. Maybe you need to start a page…

  2. calmgrove says:

    Yes, I have moments like this most TV programmes. They are sigh tedious to watch and tedious to recount. British TV is full of moments like this: ‘Casualty’ (an A&E hospital drama my son happens to work on as grip) is unwatchable for me as the first 5 minutes are spent second-guessing who’s going to hospitalised by the accident-waiting-to-happen situation. And ‘Downton’ (I’m sure you’ve seen that in the States) is full of these stale tropes (the morning sickness one, for example, recently).

    It’s screen writing by the lazy, for the lazy.

  3. Pingback: Writing clichés redux | Stewartry

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