So we might be teaching the kids about cliches this year. I’m glad to say we don’t hear a lot of cliched phrases or plot points in the Den meeting room, but in case you get tempted, here’s 10 tips to avoid cliches from Writer’s Digest. I’ve cut it down to the important points, but you can find the link to the full article at the bottom.
- “Most sensational subjects have been treated to death. Result: a minefield of clichés. And, as novelist Martin Amis tells us, good writing is a “war against cliché.” The story’s problems might be partially redeemed by crisp dialogue, vivid descriptions and an impeccable edgy style—but the plain fact is, they shouldn’t be solved. Steer clear of tired plots and you, your characters and your readers will avoid all kinds of heartache.”
You probably are familiar with some of these tired plots. Keep in mind this doesn’t mean you have to throw away the concept–for example, Romeo and Juliet is the story of lovers from different/feuding worlds, but that doesn’t mean you story has to have the same themes, plot progression, etc. (unless it’s some sort of parody).
- “For beginning and experienced writers alike, the temptation to choose intrinsically dramatic subjects is hard to resist. Drug deals and busts gone wrong, kidnapping, abortion, car crashes, murder, madness, rape, war—with such sensational raw material to work with, how can writers go wrong?”
Okay, crazy stuff. Avoid it as a general rule; bad movies tackle this and focus on the senstionalism. My suggestion is that if you’re going to do it, focus on thing. Don’t write about a drug deal that turns into a rape that leads to a car crash–hold on, I think I found my pitch to Hollywood. Other than my sequel to The Dark Knight Rises.
- “Every milieu has its clichés, its stock characters and stereotypes. A common stereotype is that of the starving artist. Just once, I’d like to read about a talented, hard-working painter, supplementing his small income from gallery sales through teaching, grants and fellowships. This, after all, is the reality for many professional fine artists.”
This is what makes a character interesting. If I tell you Bob is an old man, and describe him as a senile cranky person, does that make him different from anything you’ve seen in TV or movies or at your local retirement home? Now if I tell you Alfred is an old man, but with experience in Burma and played by Michael Cane so that he has a funny accent, doesn’t that keep you engaged with the story?
- “The best way to avoid cliché is to practice sincerity. If we’ve come by sensational material honestly, through our own personal experience or imagination, we may rightly claim it as our own. Otherwise, we’d best steer clear. Our stories should be stories that only we can tell, as only we can tell them.”
YOU are not cliche (unless you’ve made an effort to be). Your life should and will have lots of odd things going for it, people, events, that you can draw inspiration from. Like that one time I saw a bat fly through the window and decided to dress like it.
- “Whenever I’ve done this experiment, in almost every instance the result is the same: The “riveting” piece bores, while the “boring” piece holds interest. There are several reasons for this. In their effort to grip us, beginning writers tend to rush: They equate their own adrenaline with that of the reader. Conversely, when trying to bore, the same writers take their time; they don’t hesitate to lavish 250 words on the subject of a wall of white paint drying. And—to their consternation—the result mesmerizes. At any rate it holds our attention.”
In my effort to get the story done, I’m guilty here. There’s nothing to say but take time and pride in your work.
- “A writer sets her story in an abortion clinic. What are the expectations raised by such a setting? To the extent that the common expectations raised by this setting are met head-on, the story fails. It descends into cliché and denies the reader an authentic experience.”
You can use cliches to your advantage. People know what to expect – so write what they don’t expect! (Without the sensational aspect, of course.)
- “Either your chosen subject plunges you into the imagination’s deeper waters, or your story will probably drift into one of two shallow waterways: 1. the autobiographical estuary, in which you write strictly about characters and events from your own life; or 2. the brackish bay of stereotype and cliché. The way to rescue this and other clichés may lie in exploring those parts of the story that don’t belong firmly to the cliché. By investing our characters with concerns and struggles that point away from the hackneyed and sensational and toward the earthier dramas of “ordinary” existence, by taking the most trite elements of our stories out of the foreground and putting them in the background, we begin to lift them out of cliché.”
Don’t get overdramatic; dramatize reality.
- “Any over-the-top action results in melodrama. A male lover, freshly dumped by his girl, throws himself into the nearest river. Melodrama. Or, being told by the same girl that she loves him, he boards a crowded subway and kisses everyone in sight, including a blind man and the conductor. Melodrama. The specific circumstances might explain such behavior (and casting a young Jimmy Stewart would help). But the likelihood is slim.”
Here’s a suggestion. If you have to have the male lover kiss everyone in sight, 1) make it unexpected, such as creating a character who seems entirely irredeemable and unromantic at the exposition and 2) logically lead up to this change so it is both a) understandable and b) interesting.
- “Sometimes the mere piling on of sensational events results in melodrama. Another result of cramming too much drama into too few pages is a paucity of authenticating detail,the sort of small, precise, carefully chosen and calibrated descriptions that help suspend a reader’s disbelief and make it possible for her to enjoy a story no matter how unlikely or outrageous.”
This again has to do with realism. You’ll achieve more of this with accurate, believable details rather than the exaggerated movements of a cartoon.
- “A more dramatic, less histrionic approach would convey the status quo between characters up front, through exposition, leaving subsequent scenes free to explore behavior and character. We read the story to see how these characters will cope (or not) with each other under specific circumstances (e.g., they have to pick a coffin for their mother’s funeral). When authors explode drama rather than describe it, their material deteriorates into soap opera and blows up in everyone’s face. Avoid the temptation to do so, and your fiction will be more powerful for it.”
Describe drama rather than explode it. Couldn’t have said it better. So I’ll just say: I’m Batman.
Source: Writer’s Digest
Got more to say on cliches? Write in the comments, or write your own blog on the topic.