Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Maybe All Dogs Don't Have Their Day

by Eric

When it comes to literary cliches, I'm ambivalent. The ghosts of my English Literature professors cry out from the past to avoid cliches like...well... like something other than a rat-borne disease, certainly. But I also believe there's a lot of wisdom in the cliche that cliches become cliches for a good reason -- because they express an idea so well. I recall watching MacBeth and needing to continually remind myself that when he wrote the play, Shakespeare wasn't a hack piling up tired old phrases. No doubt every dog had its day and brevity was the soul of wit long before 1606 but it took William Shakespeare to put those truths into words so apt that we still use them more than four hundred years later.

Though not necessarily in a novel. Some cliches are so familiar as to be wince-worthy even in their originator's work. A writer today would probably not tell readers that a villain was hoist on his own petard. On the other hand, might a protagonist still see something in his mind's eye? It's a thin line and besides, most cliches are more mundane than Shakespearean. They don't leap out from the page, at least if you're not a critic. The eyes of startled characters still get round, those knocked on the head from behind fall into pits of darkness or the like. Many sorts of common expressions are cliched to varying degrees and it doesn't upset me when a writer gives in and says something in a way that's been used before.

It can be painful to read desperate attempts to avoid those dreaded shop-worn phrases. A sixties science fiction author once wrote a whole paragraph describing, with anatomical precision, how a character's vertebrae quivered beneath the cold footsteps of a terrible foreboding (or some such), perhaps because he couldn't bring himself to just tell the reader (who might have been a literary critic after all!) that his poor character felt chills down his spine.

As a writer you don't want to make readers cringe at your lazy lack of originality but you don't want to make them laugh at your clumsy circumlocutions either. As Shakespeare might have said: neither a pathetic hack nor a Great Artiste be.

Cliches can extend beyond simple words. How many hackneyed plot devices do we all tolerate to one degree or another? For instance, you'd think there's an unwritten law that thrillers and action movies need to end with the hero's wife/daughter/girlfriend being taken hostage. I admit I have never seen a female action heroine's boyfriend held hostage but maybe I don't get out enough. Then more times than not, as the villain is about to pull the trigger of his weapon a shot rings out (ouch...) and rather than the hostage dying the villain looks surprised, then presumably falls into a pit of darkness, having been shot from behind at the last moment, quite often by a character who has not had the guts to shoot anyone until then.

Though overused this ending is satisfying and useful. I have to say that because in the climactic scene of our first book, One for Sorrow, Mary and I had John's family taken hostage by the baddies.

So, yes, even writers who might know better in principle often employ cliches. Meddlesome old biddies who solve mysteries are cliches, as are ladies who track down murderers while not baking pastries to sell in their small shops, not to mention private investigators. Not that PIs are sold in small shops. They tend to spend their time drinking in their small offices. One thing all these cliches have in common is that they are unrealistic. These categories of people hardly ever solve murder cases in reality.

So these cliches are popular because people like them, not because they artfully express a truth. Maybe all dogs don't have their day but we only think they do because Shakespeare said it so well and, in fact, brevity is not the soul of wit. (Oh yes it is, I hear you saying at this point. Oh yes it is.)

I seem to be going off the tracks here, hopefully not straight into a pit of darkness. The point is Mary and I have begun a new novel and we made our detective a reporter. Which is a cliche and also not very realistic. Call it a trope if you prefer. (See if I care) We didn't want anyone in law enforcement, or the usual type of amateur, or anything too esoteric. Reporters do look into wrongdoing and possess sleuthing skills and plenty have been involved in fictional murder mysteries. We had the idea after watching Fritz Lang's 1958 film While The City Sleeps about reporters vying to identify a serial killer. If it's good enough for Fritz Lang....

By the way, the movie was based on Charles Einstein's brilliant novel The Bloody Spur, the title of which, you probably won't be surprised to learn, comes from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

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