Rescuing Your Story From Cliche

In this excerpt from 179 Ways to Save a Novel, author Peter Selgin discusses ways to defeat the writer's sworn enemy: the cliche. 
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Rescuing Stories From Circumstantial Cliché

As the moth is attracted to flame, less-than-vigilant writers are attracted to the bright light of intrinsically dramatic situations, where the drama is preassembled, ready to use—convenient.

We’re drawn to clichés because they’re convenient. And convenience for writers—convenient plots, convenient characters, convenient coincidences, convenient settings or situations or strings of words—almost always spells doom.

A writer sets her story in an abortion clinic. What are the expectations raised by such a setting? To the extent that those expectations are met head-on, her story fails. It descends into cliché and denies the reader an authentic experience.

One expects (for instance) that a young woman will face an excruciating choice under great pressure. She may or may not be accompanied by the man or boy who put her in this position; he may be callous or callow, or he may be sensitive and confused. The drama may occur on the way to Planned Parenthood, or on the way home, but the implied setting is still the clinic itself.

What will the author do to rescue that drama from our expectations, from cliché?

In “Hills Like White Elephants,” Hemingway rescues his abortion story by doing away with the setting. Instead of locating his story in the abortion clinic, he sets it in the station where the man and woman await the train that will take her to the city and (as we infer, since abortion is never mentioned) to the clinic. Hemingway’s story of an abortion was powerful then because no one had previously dared to raise the subject. It remains powerful today because Papa avoided the obvious, and in so doing rescued his story from a cliché before the cliché had even been coined.

In “Miserere,” one of seven mercilessly authentic stories gathered in Bear and His Daughter by Robert Stone, a widowed librarian salvages aborted fetuses from clinic dumpsters in order to have them blessed for burial.

Stone avoids the obligatory abortion clinic setting, as well as the distraught patient and her callous and/or contrite boyfriend. Stone steers clear of such well-trodden territory to give us a story that reawakens our senses to a subject that has in and of itself become a cliché.

Somebody Up Ther Likes Cliches: An Imitation Boxing Story

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath.”

Either your chosen subject plunges you into the imagination’s deeper waters, or your story will probably drift into one of two shallow waterways:

(a) the autobiographical estuary, in which you write strictly about characters and events from your own life,
(b) the brackish bay of stereotype and cliché.

A student’s story about a boxer drifts into the second waterway, recycling familiar material from old boxing movies: On the Waterfront, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Rocky I, II, III, etc. That the boxer-protagonist happens to be female doesn’t rescue the story, especially now that female boxing stories have already entered the Kingdom of Cliché.

The way to rescue this and other clichés may lie in exploring those parts of the story that don’t belong firmly to the cliché. When she’s not boxing, what is our female pugilist doing? Does she have friends, family, children? Maybe she’s boxing to put her son or daughter (or herself) through college, or to support her stroke-victim father? Or maybe she’s doing what she’s doing to regain her confidence and strength after losing her husband, or after a serious illness?

By investing our characters with concerns and struggles that point away from the hackneyed and sensational and toward the earthier dramas of “ordinary” existence, by taking the most trite elements of our stories out of the foreground and putting them in the background, we begin to lift them out of cliché.

Learn more about 179 Ways to Save a Novel

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