When does genre become cliché?
One of my stories was rejected this week. I got some really good feedback, and a request to submit more work to the same publisher – so I’m happy enough. But it did get me thinking. I wrote the piece with the specific publication in mind. I read a couple of their recent publications, then followed a story arc and broad plot that aligned with, rather than copied, their apparent preferred style. Essentially, I wrote to their genre. But did I write a cliché? The feedback said that the publisher didn’t want my story as the pay-off was something they’d seen before. Fair comment, and really useful to know when I either re-write that piece or write something else for them (or anyone else for that matter).
But it does re-raise a question that I’ve been asking myself for a while. I write genre fiction. Most fiction writers do (whether they like it or not). But we all want to avoid clichés (I think it’s illegal to write that without adding ‘like the plague’). Readers want the hero to complete their quest, the white hat to win, the anti-hero to both succeed and reform or the troubled detective to solve the murder. That’s genre. But when does writing genre slip into cliché or even worse, plagiarism? When does one hero become a poor imitation of another, and a third, and so on?
Very few writers set out to plagiarise others (except, perhaps, for some re-tellings of classic stories – which is probably not plagiarism…) but there are only so many broad plots, only so many ways that a small cast of characters can interact and only so many twists which actually make sense.
Here’s the question, then. How do I square the circle? How do I (or anyone else) write in genre and to house style without becoming repetitive or essentially copying what’s gone before. How do we write something new without going so far out of genre that we fall outside the requirements of the publisher and audience we’re aiming at?
I’d love to hear your thoughts – as readers, do you want to be shocked or do you want your stories to follow the usual rules of your preferred genre? And writers, do we need to be brave and break common genres? Or are we writing into ever decreasing opportunities to retell the same broad plots? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments!
Hmm, you ask some excellent questions. Honestly, I always try to break clichés. I recently posted about young adult clichés, and how they should be changed. With my own books, I try to think about what hasn’t been done before. However, I do feel there isn’t much original content left in the world. As writers, we have the hard job of spinning those clichés into something new. The problem is: what is the new?
Right now I’m writing a story about mermen and mermaids. The story seems to be doing ok online, but compared to pure cliché stories, I don’t have a chance.
I guess that we write because we feel we want to say something that hasn’t been said before – I doubt if many (ior any) can be truly original but we have our own idiosyncratic take on things that others might have already written about.
If you write genre fiction then it’s inevitable you’ll have your own favorite authors but it doesn’t mean that you’re destined to copy them. Ultimately the core of a genre story is going to be a cliche, but the skill of the good writer is to write about that cliche in a way that is unique to them, to their narrative voice, to the character of their protagonist.
Maybe that was the reason behind the publisher’s rejection – maybe it wasn’t that your story was a cliche, but they felt that your own narration of it didn’t make it ‘feel’ different. Perhaps it needs a bit more of yourself and a bit less of the genre. Mind you, it’s always easier to offer possible explanations for other people’s rejections that it is your own.