I know the title is somewhat of a redundancy (as in the definition of a cliché is that it’s commonly used), but I’m specifically denoting what things are commonly used as clichés. I did an article a while back (it seems like a much longer time than it really was) on this topic, but I decided to make a series about it because the topic is just too expansive.
First, I’d like to briefly address the topic of clichés: per se, they are not to be avoided. If a clichéd topic is handled in an original way, the idea itself will seem original. Simply the presence of a well-known cliché is not what readers are annoyed by. It’s that it’s often conducted with the same elements or under similar circumstances. Handled correctly, it should feel like an entirely different scene with similar elements. Handled poorly, it’s going to look like a copy-paste job with new names and faces.
Given this, a lot your writers (and old ones) say to avoid clichés altogether. I’m going to have to disagree: the world of writing is just too expansive for complete originality. Heck, I’m willing to bet that 50% percent of your story at least strongly resembles something from another story, or even from real life. Clichés are unavoidable, and pretending that you can get around them just means that you’re denying the fact.
The good news is that if you pose a cliché like an original idea, it can easily come off as one. This is because your can spin a topic to be infinitely complicated (even inventing your own aspects), and talking about underappreciated or obscure aspects of a cliché can make it seem original.
Okay, to the subject at hand: the school.
If you were to ask me the number one worst-handled cliché in history, I’d tell you that it’s the public school. Seriously, how cheesy (and yet how unreal) it is to be stuffed in a locker? I can remember the last book or audiobook in which that happened to someone. “Locker-stuffing” is a joke. How unfortunate, then, that almost all aspects of a public school (class periods, cafeterias, banal classrooms, teachers, principals, bullies, buses, ad infinitum) are this way.
I was homeschooled growing up, (in case you hadn’t noticed) so a lot of these aspects were unfamiliar to me. However, upon learning to read, I found out very quickly that there wasn’t a lot of difference between Judy B. Jones’ school and Jigsaw Jones’ (it has nothing to do with their last names, I swear). Especially in children’s literature, I noticed, was the school a notorious mold to break. There was precious little originality between schools in novels.
Just for a second, imagine how much worse it is for someone who’s lived in a public school for half their childhood. The banality of repeated classes and schedules must have reinforced the idea of public school one-hundredfold. If school bores you (as it does so many others) then this book will bore you as well. You may even start to despise it.
But anyway, it’s pretty well established that public schools are a pretty sore clichés at this point. However, in a lot of CRF involving children, it’s almost mandatory for them to go to school. Unless they live in a third-world country, they would go to a public school. If you weren’t thinking hard about this, you might fall victim to a cliché.
Firstly, I’d like to state that even if you think you’re being herded into an unavoidable cliché, you still have options. You’re the author, remember? The rules of this world bend to your will. If you want to avoid the cliché that is public school, consider a liberal-arts education, homeschool, or cook up a good excuse for no school at all. Of course, you’d need to do some research to make sure that you’re not incorrectly emulating the education of your choice, but at least you’re not pedaling the tired gotcha.
However, if you do choose a public school education for your character (whether by necessity or by choice), emphasize aspects of school that no one usually think about. In other words, avoid discussion of cafeterias and class periods and instead focus on the hero’s relationship with the janitor or the color of the carpet or the entertainment of the classes. If your school is different from all the other schools in literature, then don’t emphasize the similarities. Emphasize the differences.
On the topic of emphasizing/diminishing things, one thing I’ve learned from C.S. Lewis is to say hardly anything about the topic at all. When Lewis writes of the Experiment House in the Silver Chair, all you can decipher about it is that it’s backwards down-and-up, and is mainly inhabited by jerks. One word: miserable. However, beyond that, you don’t get much.
The genius of this design, however, comes from how he diverts the imagination: if he had said little, but instead mentioned things characteristic about a normal school, the reader would have pictured any old public school. However, since Lewis mentioned a few things that were odd, the reader puts out of their head all images of traditional public school. It’s all about mentioning the most unusual things and leaving the more common details in the dark, leaving the reader to imagine whether they are there or not. Either way, the reader’s imagination fills in the cracks, and the Experiment House avoids becoming a cliché.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!