This article (David Farland by way of The Passive Voice), and the ensuing discussion, reminded me of a post I’ve been wanting to write since film screening season started, about how important it is to have some idea where the story is going in order to have the patience to let it unfold. Then I remembered: I already wrote that post.
But I realized there is a point to be made on the idea of “cliche” openings that is different from opening-as-hook. Specifically as it relates to genre books by and for people who do not normally read the genre.
See, Farland’s point is that he reads a ton of stories that open in certain ways, such that he finds such openings to be cliche. From my point of view screening films by beginning (in most cases) film-makers, I could say the same about certain themes or stories. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve watched about low-level criminals getting in over their heads, for example, and that’s far from the only overused trope I’ve seen in the last few months.
For the average reader (or movie-watcher) those openings or themes or included elements are not cliche because they haven’t seen them often enough. But the more you read, the more likely you are to start editorializing your own reading.
For example, fantasy. I almost can’t read fantasy about a young boy (or girl) discovering they have a secret heritage and going on a quest to save the world. Almost being the key word there. If it’s done well enough to overcome the overused plotline, it’s still awesome.
So when a book like Fifty Shades of Grey comes out and all the people who read romance scratch their heads and ask “Why?” the answer is that for the people who don’t read romance, the book is original and unique and something they have not read before. For romance readers, it’s full of cliches and not that well-written or well-characterized (aside from discussions of whether the book is properly romance or erotica).
The notion of cliches in storytelling technique kind of hinges on who your audience is. If you are writing for people who don’t normally read “that kind of thing” your work might well not appeal to people who do (Twilight to vampire-lovers, anyone?). If you are writing to intentionally bust the common conventions of a genre, the non-genre reader might miss some of the humor or surprise of your book (George R. R. Martin to people who read a lot of fantasy versus those who don’t, for example). If you don’t have the benefit of the long dialogue that has been happening for years/decades/centuries of human culture on that particular topic, you see a work differently from those who have been participating in or at least listening to that discussion.
All art, all culture, is a remix and redux of what has gone before. It is that particular person’s distillation of the ideas they have seen before, filtered through their own unique view of the world. Culture is a constant dialogue we all have with each other as we share our own distillations. What makes something cliche, or not, is often a matter of taste–whether that person has seen enough of that dialogue to be tired of it.
And that is how shifts in literature (or poetry, or film, or art, or whatever) happen–when the artistic community and the “fans” who consume it reach a saturation point with a particular style or idea…when that convention seems cliche to more people than not…THAT is when a cultural shift happens, and suddenly something new has become the Hot Thing.