Murder at Cliché Manor

It was a dark and stormy night, and the victim lay sprawled across the library floor like a worn-out phrase. DI Findlater cut an impressive figure: tall, dark and handsome, his aristocratic features silhouetted in the flickering of the gas lamp above his head.  

So, what have we got then, Sergeant?’ he shouted, trying to make himself heard over the whistling wind and rattling windowpanes.

Sergeant Webster pulled a dog-eared notebook out of his shabby coat pocket and grumbled loudly. He was like a bear with a sore head ever since his wife had left him due to his workaholic nature and heavy drinking. And he was not happy to be back in the crumbling old mansion. 

‘It’s the same all over again, Guv,’ he replied. ‘Just like last week’s case: Totally Unimaginative. Only this time, the deceased’s name is Overused. Completely Overused.’  

How do you like the opening section of my new opus? Great, innit? It’s clear, with gothic ambiance and lots of information about the main characters from the offset. So why is everyone sniggering? What do you mean, it’s full of clichés? Of course it is. That’s the whole point.

Or, as Sherlock Holmes might say in one of his more flippant moments, ‘I rest my case.’

As you can see from the above, clichés work on two levels – in the choice of language and in the creative choices such as character, setting and plot.

The problem with linguistic clichés is that they are victims of their own success. They are pithy and precise, leaving no room for ambiguity: perfect shorthand to get meaning across quickly and clearly, which is why they are so useful in everyday speech. The downside is that they are completely unoriginal. And therein, as Hamlet would say, lies the rub. Clarity is vital for communication, but most readers (and writers) are looking for a little more.

Clichés and stereotypes such as the maverick cop, the tall, dark, handsome stranger, the mysterious gothic mansion  and the flashy Manhattan penthouse, turn up regularly in fiction and film and, as with their linguistic cousins, it is usually a case of ‘familiarity breeding contempt’.

The worst effect of the cliché is that it deadens originality and spoils a writer’s unique voice. Everything you write should be uniquely yours – readers will clamour time and time again for your maverick cop as long as she or he doesn’t sound and look the same as fifty others. So, use clichés and genre tropes sparingly, if at all. Don’t allow your prose become boring and unimaginative. Give your characters an original voice and keep your readers hooked.

8 thoughts on “Murder at Cliché Manor

  1. Oh, dear, Ericka, I’m sorry to hear Cliche Manor woke you up-hopefully you weren’t feeling too murderous as a result! Glad you enjoyed the post, in any event.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post, PT. Personally, I think it is all about the choices we make as authors – see Murder at Cliche Manor 2. Even cliches can be reinvigorated if an author brings their own unique angle or voice to them.

  3. Absolutely. You can’t always ignore or remove the stereotypical elements of some characters, otherwise they simply wont be historically accurate. But you can look at the other elements of their personality – is there something original or unique in them that only you personally as a writer can bring out or explore? Bottom line, I think authors just need to have an awareness of cliches and make definite choices as to whether or not to use certain words, phrases or stereotypes. The process of choosing in itself keeps the writing fresh, I feel.

  4. I try to avoid cliche in plot development, but writing historical novels, sometimes a cliche use of speech or a stereotypical personalty is unavoidable…that’s why they became stereotypes and cliches…because they are historically familiar.

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