Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Are Cliches Always The Thin End Of The Wedge? By Sally Quilford

One of the participants on my Online Pocket Novel Workshop said that she hoped to learn to write happy endings that weren’t clichéd.

My first bit of advice was to accept that romances, by their very nature, are clichés. Until you accept that, it will be impossible for you to write them because you’ll be trying to break a mould that does not need to be broken. When readers pick up a romance they expect certain things. They expect a heroine they'll root for, a hero they'll fancy and a Happy Ever After that brings the two together.
A traditional romance, even if it’s updated a la Bridget Jones’s Diary, is always going to be some variation of girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-gets-boy back again. Happy endings in themselves are clichés. After some big misunderstanding or other conflict (without which you wouldn’t have a story worth reading), the hero and heroine get back together, kiss and then (either metaphorically or literally) go off into the sunset together.

Oh for a happy ending with Colin!

If you’re scoffing at this, then you’d probably also scoff at the readership who enjoy and expect these sort of endings. Mills and Boon are still going strong after 100 years by giving readers what they want. My Weekly Pocket Novels and The People’s Friend pocket novels still fly off the shelves every fortnight because the editors (and writers) are giving readers what they want. It’s a rose-coloured world that probably has never existed in real life, but it’s what makes them happy for however many hours it takes them to read the novels. They close the books feeling, if only for a short time, that all is well with the world. They might not have much to smile about in the real world, but they’ve been able to escape it for a while into a world where everything happens exactly as it should happen.

So don’t underestimate the power of clichés. Clichés are comforting, like putting on an old jumper that might be a bit baggy and years out of fashion, but is still the most comfortable piece of clothing you have ever owned.
So knowing all this, can you still make your stories less hackneyed? I think you can. In a novella I’ve just had accepted by Siren, the hero and heroine literally do ride off into the sunset together on a horse. But when you figure in that my heroine is terrified of horses, as shown earlier in the story, it takes on a whole different meaning. It’s a way of showing that she feels safe with the hero and trusts him not to let any harm come to her. So perhaps not so hackneyed after all. At least that was my intention when I wrote it. Whether readers will think ‘God that's corny' is another matter.

If it's good enough for Indiana Jones...

And this is perhaps one way of making sure a story and the happy ending that ensues isn’t clichéd or hackneyed. It will always have to fit in with what’s gone before, so pick one nugget of your story that may have just been used to show character development, and base the happy ending around that. Do remember that the ending must always come from the story, and not be suddenly tagged on because you’ve remembered you have to get the hero and heroine together by the end.
One of my least favourite types of romance is where the hero is absolutely awful to the heroine thoughout the story, then suddenly realises he loves her, apologises and, more astoundingly, is forgiven, regardless of what has gone before. But apparently this goes down well with some readers in parts of the world. A hero can be downright evil to the heroine all the way through, as long as he has the epiphany at the end and becomes a nicer person because of his love for her. If I were the heroine in that story, I’d need more than an apology to make me realise that this abusive man is the one I want to spend the rest of my life with.
Maybe this is why I like writing pocket novels. Such a hero or ending would never be permitted. Yes, they might be clichéd, and like that comfy old jumper, but that’s what keeps me writing them, and what keeps readers reading them.

I end by advising you to check out the TV Tropes page, which affectionately lists all the tropes (or cliches) used in fiction, film and televison, and also proves that romance writing isn't the only type of fiction that has cliches. It's a great way of learning what's gone before and finding out how you can play with those ideas for your own story.


  1. Excellent post, thank you. I love the escapism and security of happy endings!

  2. You're right Sally, cliches/tropes whatever you want to call them aren't always a bad thing. I've used them when in one pocket novel the hero and heroine declare their love in the tipping rain on a rainswept beach - it was a useful device to show how even when the world looks grey and miserable it can be wonderful because of the person you're with. I make no apologies for it, it worked! Cara

  3. I think I'm right in saying that a pocket novel should provide two good hours of reading - it needn't all be happy, there should be that roller coaster ride making the reader turn the pages but yes, most definitely The Happy Ending. Is it also fair to say that for pocket novels (but not necessarily other romances) it's also the Happy Ever After rather than the 'happy for now'.

  4. I love writing happy endings, as well as reading them. Wouldn't have it any other way :D

  5. Very good advice, Sally. Of course happy ever after is wanted by the reader (and writer), but when the editors say they want a 'less predictable' ending, it can be difficult to know what they mean by that.

  6. I know what you mean, Patricia. That's why I always like having a sub-plot of some sort of crime or whatever, as it's a way to keep the suspense going, so even if the reader knows the hero and heroine will get together, they don't necessarily know the outcome of any other mystery in the story.

    But I suppose it could mean a happy ending that isn't like the usual happy ending, for example, them going off into the sunset on a horse (D'oh!)

  7. Good post, good comments. Cliches don't bother me either. What does is poor copy editing and proof reading. I've just been reading a fairly recent MWPN in which a room has "guilt framed pictures" and a heroine's "goodbye smile was dredged from the very bottom of her sole." And Cyprus on one mention is rendered as "Cypress"... Grrr!

    In the same book I also lost count of the number of times genuine questions were asked without being followed by a "?" mark. In fact, punctuation throughout was poor. The story's the thing? Sure, but in this one's "happy" (and cliched) ending a pair of murderers are allowed to decamp scot-free to another country, apparently for no good reason other than that they are related to the influential hero. What kind of married life does that bode for the heroine? Also, the story's outcome for two significant subsidiary characters, friends and helpers of the heroine, is not revealed.