In the fourth season of the tv prime time soap opera Brothers and Sisters, Sarah goes to France and meets a hot artist, Luc, with whom she has a storybook romance. You know the settings for such storybook romances: picnics with tablecloths, whole roast chickens, and wild strawberries; vineyards and olive trees; winding country roads. All these settings actually do exist in France in profusion. However, what takes place in them is rarely romance for the average American, though one spring, driving through flowering trees on the road to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, I myself came close. Anyway, as Sarah and Luc are driving on a country road not unlike the one to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, we television viewers see a road sign: “Cliché sur Mer.” Neither character seems to notice it. I wonder about the sly writer who arranged for that silent, fleeting prop that undercuts the story. It amuses the hell out of me
The clichés of Brothers and Sisters — the machinations of the control-freak mother (played masterfully by Sally Field), the disastrous family dinners — have something to do with my addiction to the show:, as does, of course, the excellent scripting. I watched all 87 episodes available on Netflix in the space of ten days and wanted more. Why was I so addicted? I asked myself when feeling almost as guilty as if I’d consumed ten non-gourmet chocolates. Clichés!
Brothers and Sisters is a testament to the value of the cliché — the comfort food of drama. Writing courses warn over and over again against clichés, but, in the end, they often win out. We love them. They tell us we are in familiar territory, maybe even taken back to the security of those night times when our mothers and fathers read us the same story over and over – wouldn’t we have been disturbed if, say, the stepmother in “Hansel and Gretel” turned out to be warm and cuddly? It would have ruined everything.
Clichés can be words and phrases: the “you got it!” when you tell the waiter you want a burger with fries (hate that one), “amazing” to describe the most mundane accomplishment (hate that one, too), “good job” to reward a child for getting into the car (hate that one even more); characters: the hero who seems to be more flawed than he really is (Jane Austen), the misunderstood adolescent (James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause); situations: the French man and American woman engage in a romance, the alcoholic has a relapse, the lost dog comes home.
So as writers what do we do about clichés? Maybe we use them in unfamiliar territory, just as road signs to tell our readers we know where we are. We put them in the mouth of a character to show, with that shorthand, how conventional he really is, thus throwing into sharp relief (cliché! – why is relief always “sharp”?) the originality of our protagonist. And isn’t the protagonist with originality a cliché in itself?
Maybe it’s a cliché to say we should avoid clichés. Myself, I sometimes love them, sometimes hate them. It all depends on what they are and where they are. And whether I absolutely have to use them in something amazing that I’m writing.