On trying to teach students not to use clichés

With experience as a writer comes certainty about clichés (and their exceptions). Don’t use ’em exclamation point period. These worn-out formulas add nothing to the writing. Setting aside characters like Hamlet’s Polonius who spout clichés as a way of demonstrating that very fact.

Yet I have students in upper level creative writing classes who will debate that there’s nothing wrong with using clichés in poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, that they are there for a reason, that they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t useful. I also have many introduction to creative writing students whose work is as full of clichés as ticks on a dog.

So when students in my “Writing for Teachers” graduate class ask, “How do you teach students not to use clichés?” Well, I don’t have a quick and easy answer I can give in two shakes of a sheep’s tail. But we can break down clichés into groups. There are: 

  • clichés that are familiar, hackneyed phrases
  • clichés of character, dialogue, non-verbal behavior
  • clichés of situation, oh, hell, plot, action, scenes that are overused set pieces

I think there’s a difference between the phrases and the latter categories. The phrases are easier to unlearn. The latter categories take more education and experience. They seem to me the kind of mistakes many beginning writers go through that will take some tough, honest critique. “The Sage Old Crone” or “The Wise Old Black Man” who arrives just in time to dispense needed advice in a sort of deus ex machina manner and then disappears into the sunset, leaving the protagonist wiser and changed for the better.

The “lecherous boss” who not only tries constantly to pressure younger, pretty women to have sex, but also must be ugly as well as pure evil.

I’ve even had graduate students who teach creative writing to high schoolers compose blonde, “willowy” waisted girlfriends who just need a strong man, slightly older, but whose dark hair is still full and who dances perfectly, can cook, is loving and wise, and kind, and always patient with their tender but flawed love interest, to convince them that yes, they can chance having that baby and *poof* fast-forward eighteen years to the kid’s high school graduation, and sigh, it was worth it.

I think it’s just part of learning to recognize and discard the weak, the stereotypical, the false, the horribly boring, and the biased clichés. It’s going to take time to see stories with that kind of critical eye. I also recommend the TV Tropes Web site – it’s a gold mine of inventive names and definitions of overused baggage. I’ve started using it to name the problems, such as the “hopeless suitor,” or the “dogged nice guy.” It’s full of intelligent discussion of how they are used, overused, and abused.

Tvtropes.org has inspired me to coin some tropes of my own, such as the “southern fried female,” who is lusty, busty, crude, rude, talks in slang, is lower economic class, white, and can kick yer fanny if it comes to it. But she’s also sad and destined for sufferin’. And there’s the “sage old crone” I mentioned above, who not only can fix the protagonist with her words about the necessity of appreciating what you have, but does it while also fixing the protagonist breakfast at Waffle House.

Because sage advisors, crone or old man, must be of a lower economic class, perhaps a person of color, a sad retiree with nothing else to do, or even better, an (old) street person who has no other needs than to dispense advice to the main character, who then leaves the street person with thanks, but not even a sandwich. End of story.

Using cliché words and phrases certainly can be untaught more easily. Not every character has to giggle, sigh, chuckle, sob, shake their head, nod, groan, frown, or perform another half-dozen or so limited non-verbal gestures. Highlighting a draft using Word’s “advanced find and replace feature” clearly shows the extent of the problem and a conversation can begin about rounding effective characters through individual and non-stereotypical non-verbals.

However, teaching the creative arts does have a vulnerability particular to its discipline. Students can and often do claim the authority to refuse to learn. Because they know better and their more experienced teachers aren’t sagacious, but in reality don’t know shit about shit. Then they are destined to learn “the hard way,” “the long way,” on “the long hard road” right? Haven’t a bunch of us been there and done that? (I’m raising my hand.)

Rarely in any other discipline, such as math, biology, or chemistry, say, does a student claim to know better and want to do it a way that is considered incorrect.

Comes with the territory, I’m afraid. It just takes students longer than one term to learn writing well, creative or otherwise. You don’t get to see the progress as it can’t be measured the same way as in other disciplines. 

So you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

But, as you know, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

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