Conventions and clichés in writing

Conventions and cliches
A beautiful heroine – but what colour are her eyes?
A fortnight ago, I promised a post on conventions and clichés in book and film. I am a week late in delivering this, but better late than never, right? (No cliché intended.) So what are conventions and clichés, and what is the difference between the two? Are they good or bad? Why do we care?

Convention or cliché?

This article pertains more to film than to literature, but it does a good job of explaining the key concepts regardless.

To summarise, a cliché is an overused character type or plot device or descriptive phrase. For example, the beautiful, perfect maiden (with hair that’s golden like the sun and eyes as blue as the sea), who goes on an epic journey then wakes up to discover it was all a dream.

A convention is a guideline or rule of thumb (usually specific to genre) that a reader (or viewer) expects to be adhered to, and might or might not be disappointed if it is not. For example, a happy ending in a romance story or a love triangle in a piece of young adult fiction. This blog post is a useful guide to some of the genre conventions often employed in books.

So are they good or bad?

The prevailing opinion is that clichés are bad and conventions are good (especially if you are writing genre, as opposed to literary, fiction). My view is that things are a little less black and white than that. Clichés, surely, are usually best avoided if you want to be original (but maybe you don’t), but it’s important to remember that whether or not something constitutes a cliché is entirely subjective. There will always be the reader who has never ever read a book with the “and then I woke up and it was all a dream” ending, and thinks it is a brilliant, innovative idea.

Furthermore, one person’s convention might be another person’s cliché, so it can be difficult to entirely delineate the two. I have seen anecdotal evidence that, despite it being the thing to do, many YA readers are now becoming bored of agonising love triangles. So the convention turns cliché.

And my favourite rule (rebel that I am) is that rules are made to be broken. There are definitely situations in which a cliché might work, for humorous effect, as an example.

As for conventions, I think it depends on the type of book you want to write (or read), and how much risk you are willing to take on.

When are conventions good?

As readers or viewers, we have (often subconscious) expectations of how a story is going to turn out, formed by years or decades of reading and viewing. We root for the will they-won’t they couple to get together, we want to know what the villain’s dark secret is and for everybody to live happily ever after. Or do we?

Some readers really, really do. I read a comment on a blog recently where somebody said they threw a book across the room because the ending was unhappy – they felt betrayed by the author and vowed to never again read anything by them. Some readers are hardcore fans of, say, romance or crime, and become very disgruntled if things don’t turn out as they expected them to.

If, as a writer, you want to be able to say, “I write in X or Y genre”, then common wisdom has it that you need to fulfil genre tropes or risk incurring readers’ wrath. Readers’ wrath = loss of sales = lack of commercial success. So it seems that genre conventions perhaps do matter if you want to write in a specific genre for a specific type of reader, and want to earn a decent living from it.

More generally, some conventions exist because they are effective. Stories about intrepid heroes going on quests are popular because a story about a coward deciding to stay at home instead most likely wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. If you do want to fulfil genre conventions, the trick is to make your story original despite some elements being as expected.

When do conventions not matter?

I often read that to ignore genre conventions is to do so at your peril, that a romance novel without a romance (or a crime thriller without a crime) will turn readers off. But if a book doesn’t contain romance, then it ISN’T a romance, simply a book that has been misclassified as such. My point here is that applying a genre label to a book means nothing. Genre is subjective and a sliding scale. As I alluded to earlier, the more literary the novel, the more likely a reader won’t be annoyed if you don’t fulfil genre conventions –if there is no genre, there can be no genre conventions.

If you are willing to risk some readers being displeased or not “getting” your story, then break all of the genre conventions you want. The important thing is to be aware of genre conventions and the fact that readers might expect them – then you can make a conscious decision as to whether or not to break them.

My opinion as a writer

This is all easier said than done, however. How do you know how literary your book is, how predisposed to disgruntlement your potential readership is? You don’t. I don’t think you can sit down and say, “I’m going to write a literary novel that subverts genres and will leave readers amazed”.

That is why I just write what I want to write – much like genre, conventions aren’t something I explicitly consider. If I end up subconsciously adhering to a set of conventions, great. If I don’t and my book is regarded as relatively literary, also great. I am painfully aware I risk alienating some readers (and agents) through this approach but that is my decision and my risk to take on. Other writers might hold the opposite viewpoint and choose to write in a specific genre (and fulfil the corresponding conventions) from the start.

My book doesn’t have an out-and-out romantic subplot, and the ending could be considered bittersweet. Will this please readers? Only readers can be the judge of that. I have, however, enjoyed writing it and that is the bottom line for me.

My opinion as a reader

Personally, I LIKE to be surprised – it might make me feel sad when the will they-won’t they couple won’t, but I relish that sadness. The book is making me think and changing my expectations as I go along. But I don’t necessarily always hate conventions either – it depends on what I’m looking for that day, and the author’s unique spin on the convention. It is entirely possible for a book to be original without breaking a single rule, and, conversely, for a book to tear up the rulebook itself but be a terrible read.

Conventions: the last word

The article I linked to at the start of this post mentions that novice filmmakers often, idealistically, set out to break boundaries and conventions, but soon realise they are an effective storytelling tool. This could be perfectly true – perhaps I will learn to appreciate conventions in my own writing a lot more in years to come.

But I still believe that you have to at least start out by writing exactly what you want to write. This is necessary to figure out your own rules and exactly where you position yourself on the potential trade-off between risk and reward. After all, breaking the rules CAN be rewarding. Every convention starts somewhere – somebody, one day in the past, told the first story about boy meeting girl and living happily ever after. So who knows, if you are writing a book where boy falls in love with girl’s mother instead, you might end up being the first of many. Even if girl does have hair that’s golden like the sun and eyes as blue as the sea…


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