Reader Wants Cookie!
We’ll start off our series on the uses, abuses, and avoidance of clichés with how they’re really useful and in fact expected.
Again, note I’m not talking about making your entire book a cliché, or making your story utterly unoriginal (we’ll get to that under abuses.)
Rather, the proper use of cliché is to fill in bits – because no one (NO ONE) can create a whole world out of whole cloth, and if you don’t mention some of the clichés, the readers will put them in anyway.
And the fun part of the filling in bits is as a nod to past things in the genre, to genre tropes that every devoted reader knows, to in jokes and things the reader expects.
Kris Rusch calls these “reader cookies.” I don’t know if the expression is original with her.
Reader cookies are the easiest of all cliché uses (and it’s a good thing I did them today, when I started off late, and I’m doing this on half a brain!) … and the most difficult. You have to make sure at the same time that you’re doing a nod thing and that you don’t alienate new readers, because for any genre, your book might be the first that this reader encounters. You also have to make sure that the reader cookie is fun but won’t make people laugh outloud in the middle of a serious scene. (I might have failed that last with one of mine, and certainly failed pre-edit.)
One way I did reader cookies in the Darkship world is that the titles are allusions to classics of various genres, but mostly science fiction. When you name a section Stranger in a Strange land, the reader who knows the history of the field will smile knowingly and feel gratified. The ones who don’t, don’t care.
(The way I almost failed that, is in Darkship Renegades having Ringo shout Live Free or Die and then being shot while wearing a red kilt. Then there is the follow up I had to delete, because when someone in the final fight says “Oh, John Ringo, no.” It’s a climatic fight. People shouldn’t be giggling while reading it.)
But there is another level of reader cookies, one that is almost expected. If you’re writing a future world, you should have some cool tech for people to admire. A world that is just like today is not exciting. In that sense flying cars (and most Heinleinian tropes) are a cliché, but one that your readers will appreciate.
The same for your other genres.
In historical, I found people love little hidden nuggets of research they can verify and find it’s true. That is a little beyond the cliché, but not really, since it’s something every historical novel writers tries to include. (Though hopefully different facts.) At the same time, some historical figures will be portrayed a certain way. No, seriously, it’s not worth rowing against the current of the reader’s mind. People are a mixed lot and when writing of real people, I can make Shakespeare a profligate and Kit Marlowe an innocent, but only for a short story. If I’d tried that for a novel ten years ago, I’d still be buried under complaining emails.
In mystery there are clichés, like the closed room murder – if you’ve read The Musketeer’s Seamstress, how many of you realized that was what I was setting up? And doing that in the form of a swashbuckling historical? Reader cookie.
In the same way as in SF, a lot of mystery reader cookies are nods to the history of the genre. Bodies in the library and a reference to the wickedness inherent in villages bring Christie to mind. Pfui brings Rex Stout to mind. Elementary invokes Sherlock Holmes…
By having these nods in there – and the same for Tolkien in Fantasy, btw – you’re assuring the reader that you’ve read the genre, that you’re experienced in it. More than that, you’re telling the reader that you’re one of them and creating a communality. You’ll be forgiven a multitude of sins when you do that. No, seriously.
Give your readers some cookies, and they might even fail to notice that you didn’t serve a main course – that is, you weren’t particularly original.
Be original if you can, of course. Be as original as you can, I should say. But keep feeding the readers some cookies – hat tips, allusions, or even clichéd and time honored plot points and world fixtures — and your unoriginalities or failures to soar will be forgiven…. More than if you don’t put those in, at least.
Okay – pardon this disjointed post. Hopefully it got across well enough. If/when I publish this series as a booklet I have to clean this one up.
And next week: Filler bits and duct tape.