Kill All Cliches! – Teen Edition

In an effort to get this blog a little more active again, I’m going to ramble on a bit about some cliches in writing that I think need to be eradicated.

One thing I realized about cliches is that they can be surprisingly insidious. Sure, we all know the horror movie cliche of the fake-out scare — victim thinks something is lurking behind a curtain, in a closet, etc., jumps forward to confront what turns out to be a non-existent threat, breathes a sigh of relief, turns around — BOO! But there are cliches that are less obvious but just as commonplace, what you could alternately call “writer’s shorthand” or, less charitably, lazy writing.

Some of these came to mind while I was working on Action Figures, which is set amidst the world of teenagers, a setting that most adult writers have reduced to a list of tired cliches because A) they’re lazy and/or B) they’ve completely forgotten what high school was like.

In one scene the main character, Carrie, encounters in the lunch room a table full of jocks and cheerleaders — a bit of a cliche in and of itself, but one more based in reality than other tropes; people tend to sit with their friends, and in high school friendships often arise from shared interests, so it’s not unreasonable to have the sports-oriented kids sitting together.

The cliche kicks in with the portrayal of said table. In TV or movies, 99 times out of 100 all the guys at the table will be wearing their varsity jackets and all the girls will be in their cheerleader regalia. From a practical standpoint, this is the quickest and easiest way to tell the audience This person is a jock/cheerleader. It takes no dialog from any of the characters to get the point across. And yet, I HATE this trick because it is something I personally never witnessed as a high school student or in my years covering a local high school for my hometown newspaper, so I approached the scene with this bit of first-person perspective narrative:

I’m guessing that it’s a jock/cheerleader table based on the fact a couple of the guys are built like refrigerators. You see, unlike high schools as portrayed on TV, jocks and cheerleaders do not constantly wear their uniforms during the school day. I mean, come on.

Writers use similar shorthand for other stereotypes: the brainiacs wear glasses and carry lots of books, the geeks/nerds have zits and wear T-shirts emblazoned with super-hero logos, stoners have long hair and short attention spans, the outcasts wear black and have lots of piercings, etc, and yes, it gets the point across quickly, but it’s lazy writing nevertheless.

Another favorite of mine is the after-school job scene, which often involves: a McJob at a very gimmicky fast food restaurant; which requires the employees to wear embarrassing hats; and to greet invariably surly customers with forced cheer and a cheesy slogan; all the while suffering under the thumb of a tyrannical boss who views his job as far more important than it really is; who at one point will make the employee perform some nauseatingly humiliating task.

See, people? The job sucks! It’s sooooooooooooo terrible!

I think the American public knows that working at a fast-food joint blows, even if they themselves have never worked at one. Put a person behind the counter at McDonald’s or Burger King and that’s all you need to elicit sympathy or pity. The audience doesn’t need to be beaten over the head with it.

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