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How to avoid using the WRONG cliché

Well, yes sir, here we have a famous optical illusion, we sure do. Some people look at it and see the Maid in profile, some see the sad Crone. Both are present -- it wouldn't be much of an illusion otherwise, now would it?

Obviously enough, when writers create stories, they open them up to reader interpretation, and while this is generally a good thing, sometimes it can lead to disaster.

Recently, I had my first readers fly through draft 2 of my novel, Eat the Drink. The protagonist is a young lady enslaved (literally) to a vicious, nasty detective. He is trying to solve a crime while she just wants to survive her life in the presence of the monster who owns her.

At least, that's what *I* thought was happening in the story.

One of my readers, however, saw something totally different. She saw a male and a female, constantly bickering, hating each other, but forced to work together for survival and for the greater good. Naturally enough, my reader thought this meant romance was on the cards. "Why else", as she put it, "did I make my two leading characters male and female?" In the end, when they don't get together, my reader was very disappointed. Even worse, the more she read of the detective, the more despicable she found him. "He needed to be less ugly, less brutal" -- not because it made him unbelievable as a character, but because "the reader would never believe him attractive otherwise"...

You see where this is going? Or where it went? I disappointed my reader by leading her on. By making setting her up (accidentally!) to think I was writing the Maid, when all along I was writing the Crone. And this, I say again, is a bad thing.

There are three ways I could avoid this problem for draft 3:

1) Go with the romance. Ease up on my detective's nasty side etc.
2) Go with the romance and, in some unambiguous fashion, subvert the cliché -- "What, slave, all along you thought I would marry you? Ha! I prefer puppies..."
3) Make it more obvious that he is not a suitable match for anyone. The easiest way to do this, I think, is to accentuate how much older he is than she is. He could be her grandfather, after all, and this should be enough to make most of the natural romantics veer away from the idea. In other words, make it impossible to look at the picture and see anybody in there other than the Crone.

Sometimes, maybe even usually, ambiguity is a blessing, but it can be a terrible curse too. People may throw your book at the wall because they *think* you're being clichéd, or, as in this case, because you're ruining a cliché you inadvertently led them to expect. It's something to be aware of and I'm really, really grateful to my first reader for sniffing this one out for me.


( 64 comments — Leave a comment )
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Dec. 24th, 2009 01:00 pm (UTC)
She looks more like a posh lady than a maid to me :)

Interesting post. Did the other beta readers say they expected romance too?
Dec. 24th, 2009 02:09 pm (UTC)
Not so far...
Dec. 30th, 2009 03:48 am (UTC)
Yes, that would have been a startling reaction but very useful to know. When I got into genre writing a bit, I realized that there are certain expectations and assumptions. If they're going to be broken, it's best to plant the clues up front. But from what you're saying here, it really goes beyond genre. Life follows patterns, stories follow patterns, and if a writer's going to break from those ingrained expectations, ambiguity probably isn't the tool to use. :) But it's so easy to fall into ambiguity because the writer knows the story, and often knows it too well.

(by the way, I'm over here via a link from jongibbs. Thanks!
Dec. 30th, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC)
Too true! The writer always knows far too much for their own good!
Jan. 6th, 2010 07:59 pm (UTC)
Coming to this late - but I really liked this post, and found it quite enlightening about my own reactions to some books I'd read. I'd like to point to it on my blog, if I may?

And Happy New Year!
Jan. 6th, 2010 08:00 pm (UTC)
Point away :-) And happy 2010 to you too!
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:14 am (UTC)
I found it at her blog! :-) Interesting post. Unfortunately, I think there's a major tendency on many TV shows these days to try to pair up every male and female possible, even when said pairings are sick or sadistic or age-inappropriate or whatever. (And what few pairings the TV writers don't come up with, the fanfic writers do.) It's maddening. It's like there can't be a relationship -- ANY kind of relationship, personal, professional, or even familial! -- without the possibility of jumping in the sack.
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:15 am (UTC)
Oops, I submitted that too soon. I was going to add, I think that mentality is so widespread now that it's influenced a lot of people's thinking.
Jan. 7th, 2010 10:29 am (UTC)
And that's true too :-) There's room for many, many blog posts about how fiction has influenced the way we see reality. In fact, I'm sure there are dozens of academic studies out there already...
Jan. 7th, 2010 10:27 am (UTC)
Too true! Although a lot of that happens with long running series when they run out of ideas over what to do next!
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( 64 comments — Leave a comment )