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Over the past few years, it has come to my attention that I lack the ability to identify cheese. And by cheese, I mean cheesy things in movies/books. I simply don't see it. My friends have informed me that many a movie I thought was excellent was, in fact, full of cheese. While this detracted from their experience, it didn't detract from mine, because I apparently suffer from a lack of a 'cheese-meter'.

As useful for viewing/reading as this is, it poses a problem when writing novels - especially fantasy, which I plan to do. I don't know if I'm writing cheese or not. Readers of my fan fictions have told me that they contain cheese here and there, and I can't eliminate it because I can't identify it.

How can I avoid writing something cheesy?

If in the process of answering you could provide me with a solid definition for 'cheesy' it would be greatly appreciated. Google defines it as 'blatantly inauthentic', but based on my experience, there seems to be more to it.

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    Have you ever read a book/seen a movie, which you did not like because it was trope-ridden, full of cliches, and had annoyingly predictable plot twists? I find hard to believe that you are perpetually in awe :) – Lew Apr 28 '17 at 13:32
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    @Lew It's kind of weird. I rarely see cliches, unless they are really obvious. Moreso in movies than in novels. I see predictable plots, but I'm not annoyed by them for reason. I just kind of go with it. I guess I'm just there to watch the movie and be entertained. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Apr 28 '17 at 15:44
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Keep in mind that you don't have to reach everybody. There are plenty of readers, like you, who don't notice cheese in a bad way, and others who actually like it.

With that said, "cheese" generally refers to inauthentic, unearned or disproportionate sentiment, or to failed attempts at being cool. Cheese is usually a symptom of an excess of enthusiasm --the antidote is a dose of emotional detachment.

But as I said, it might be better to embrace it than avoid it.

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    +1 because while the other answers give good advice, I feel that this is the most useful definition of cheese, and of course that should help avoid it. – Michael Apr 28 '17 at 0:53
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For someone who doesn't understand cheese, the easiest gauge is probably to ask yourself the following:

"Why is this happening?"

If you can answer this question from every angle (logic, science, plot, plot development) then it probably won't come off as incredibly cheesy, even if it's an overused trope. For example, amnesia is often overused, and is usually cheesy when it happens.

Ask yourself why a character got amnesia:

Science: "Because he got hit on the head." -- Iffy, because it is highly improbable for someone to get amnesia from a random head injury

Logic: "Another character didn't like him and attacked him." -- This may be true, but it's a reason for him to get injured, not for him to get amnesia.

Plot: "Because I wanted him to forget the female character to create conflict" -- And this is the crux of the problem. This didn't happen because it made sense in the context of your characters and your story, it happened because you pulled it out of nowhere and used it as a plot device to keep your characters at odds with one another.

Amnesia can, occasionally, make sense in the context of the story. For example, if your story centered around a pair of scientists that successfully transferred someone's consciousness into a computer, however, the memories didn't transfer over correctly. In this story, one could explore not only whether the memories make the person, but whether the "soul" actually got transmitted into the computer. The character would be fretting over whether or not they died.

Cheese will happen. Tropes will happen.

But a good writer can select a trope and craft it so well that there isn't the faintest smell of cheese.

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  • Absolutely brilliant answer in my opinion! – storbror Apr 28 '17 at 10:40
  • +1 for the example and the question. It is the simplest way for someone immune to cheesiness to spot it. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Apr 29 '17 at 13:11
  • I would have to disagree with a *. If you establish ordinary characters in ordinary setting and you suddenly pull of something unlikely - then yes. But if something unlikely happens to your character(s) and the plot revolves around it - it's perfectly fine. In fact a lot/most stories are like that. – ndnenkov May 1 '17 at 14:31
  • In other words, a book about a person that gets hit by a car and gets amnesia and his struggles to go back to his past life is perfectly valid. It might be overdone, but it's not cheesy or bad writing. Doing it the The Bold and the Beautiful way is where people roll their eyes - the story was never about that, you just introduced it to create temporary conflict. – ndnenkov May 1 '17 at 14:31
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    @ndn If there is a valid reason as to why they need to struggle back to their past life after getting hit by a car, to question their moralities or grow as a character, I think that qualifies as a reason. The Plot CAN be the reason "why this is happening", as long as it's done properly -- but if you are avoiding cheese, it will usually go further and more in-depth than temporary conflict. – Chelsea May 1 '17 at 16:06
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One thing I feel has always contributed to aesthetic "cheese" is the un-self-aware over-reliance upon contemporary tropes and catchphrases, coupled with poor technique in the execution of those tropes. The lack of self awareness is really essential to this. Sometimes it can come across as innocent, sincere, or even sickly sweet, but usually it falls flat on its face.

Consider for instance including smartphones gags and reddit memes in a screenplay or novel not to critique contemporary culture or to observe nuanced aspects of it but merely to shamelessly lift the sort of humor seen in that social scene for free "brownie" points with the "hip, young audience." It reeks of the sort of thing an out-of-touch producer with no creative talent would do after searching on google trends for "what's hot" for about ten minutes.

"Oh, dank is a common buzzword on the internet. I better make these characters say it every five seconds!"

Michael Scott from the US version of the office is an expertly-written deliberately "cheesy" character. His ill-informed yet insanely sincere attempts at connecting with his workers make for awkward laughter. If you can properly write a character who's cheesy, you can avoid being that character.

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Definition

I think a good definition of cheesy is this:

Something that is low quality, amateur, but is trying really hard to be good.

It's a hard word to define for sure.

Avoidance

Beta Readers!

They're the holy grail. You should get beta readers to check your work, however, there are a number of measures you can take to help avoid cheesiness:

  • See what is cheesy. Look online to see what is seen as 'cheesy' and identify patterns. See if those show in your own work.

  • Avoid writing low-quality material with very basic ideas around them. Rather, try to create something more professional with greater depth and intrigue.

For example, something I read recently was about a wolf which could turn into a human. It was the most unprofessional, cheesy thing I had ever read and it was so cringeworthy I was fortunate not to have died. It was just so amateur, informal, and basic.

Conclusion

To be honest, I think that to increase your ability to detect cheese, the best advice is my first point. By looking at patterns of cheese and trying to notice them, you'll be able to identify what actually is cheesy.


I tasted cheese in my mouth while I wrote this answer.

I hope this helped you!!

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    It may help your point to further explain the concepts of "...material with very basic ideas" versus "...something more professional with greater depth and intrigue." This COULD be what the OP finds difficult differentiate between, thus simply giving a name to his issue rather than explaining how he could spot the differences. Otherwise a very good answer! – storbror Apr 28 '17 at 10:46
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I think cheese, as you call it, is simply one aspect of work that is not morally serious. What do I mean by morally serious? In the literary sense, I mean that a work that is morally serious is one in which the author works to ensure that they are presenting an accurate portrait of human life as it actually is, not some gratifying fantasy of life.

This does not mean realism. It means honestly presents the moral aspects of human life, our choices and the reasons we make the, as they really are, even if the setting is fantastical. Lord of the Rings is, for the most part, a morally serious work (it is a study on the nature of temptation and our capacity to resist it). Fifty Shades of Grey is not.

Being morally serious has nothing to do with adhering to or advocating for a particular moral code. Rather it is about the artist's moral responsibility to be truthful. In The Power and the Glory Graham Greene writes the story of an alcoholic priest struggling with his vocation and trying to stay alive in the anti-catholic purges in Mexico in the 1930s. He contrasts the story of the priest's actual life with the hagiographic representation of him that is later written for children. The hagiography is morally heroic, but not morally serious; the real story is morally serious, and heroic too, in its own way, but it does not paper over his temptations or his failings the way the hagiography does.

Being morally serious is by no means a prerequisite for literary success. In fact, it is probably an impediment. There is generally a much larger appetite for aspirational works, works that tell us that the world is how we would like it to be, not how it is, or that allow us to indulge in some fantasy of how we would like to be, not how we are. From Iron Man to Harry Potter to 50 Shades of Grey, there are all kinds of aspirational works, none of them morally serious, and all of them making people lots of money.

Cheese is simply one variety of aspirational literature. It is characterized by simplified and artificially heightened emotions. It offers a vision of a simple, happy, always cheery emotional life. While it may be false, it is obviously desirable to many.

But we only find aspirational literature appealing when it matches our own aspirations. Thus we laugh at a taste for comic books or romance or cowboy stories if these things don't match our aspirations. And we also tend to leap too pasionately to the defence of the works that do support our aspirations, since admitting that they are fundamentally not truthful to the nature of human life would diminish our pleasure in them.

So, there is a market for cheese. But those who don't like cheese will really not like it and will pour scorn on it. The question for a writer who discovers that many readers consider their work cheesy, is whether they want to be morally serious in their work, of if they are looking for a field of aspiration they can plow, and are happy to serve cheese to the cheese lover despite the scorn on non-cheese loving critics.

If you want to be a morally serious author, then the challenge is to discipline yourself to see the world as honestly as you can, which starts with the morally and psychologically difficult task of being honest with yourself. There are no tricks and techniques to being a morally serious author. It is all about the honesty of your vision.

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