This week: Fixing ClichesEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter is about how to recognize clichÃ©s and how to fix them or weed them out of your writing.
Sage quotes about clichÃ©s:
"Avoid the clichÃ© or corny plots that were hardly acceptable when they were first used, and which are now the stuff of bad television shows and comic books."
~ Dean Koontz, Writing Popular Fiction.
"The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot."
~ Salvador Dali, surrealist painter.
"Our writers are full of clichÃ©s just as old barns are full of bats. There is obviously no rule about this, except that anything that you suspect of being a clichÃ© undoubtedly is one and had better be removed."
~ Wolcott Gibbs, editor, author, writer for The New Yorker magazine from 1927-1958.
Not really about clichÃ©s and rather crass, but it cracked me up:
"There is a clichÃ© that men want their women to be ladies in public and hookers behind closed doors. I want my woman to be the sharper image robot so that she can be turned off."
~ Al Goldstein, publisher of a risquÃ© magazine.
What's a ClichÃ© and Why Shouldn't I Use Them?
A clichÃ© is a trite or familiar sentence or phrase that has lost originality and impact by long overuse. There's a reason phrases become clichÃ© - they work! When someone first thought them up, they were original, fresh, and catchy. People loved them, but then everyone latched onto those phrases and overused them. Now, they're just lazy writing.
Here are some examples of clichÃ© phrases:
Black as night (or pitch).
Better off dead.
Heart as cold as stone (or ice).
Mad as a hatter.
Within an inch of his life.
The crack of dawn.
The point of no return.
Tough as nails.
Head over heels in love.
Stick a fork in him, he's done.
"You had me at (insert silly word here)."
But everyone knows these phrases, right? Yes -- journalists, TV personalities, and documentary narrators use them all the time because viewers/readers understand what they mean immediately. We're drawn to clichÃ©s because they're common and easy. But common for writers -- common plots, common characters, common settings or common strings of words -- almost always spells disaster, loses the contest, or gets a rejection from the publisher. Readers want new ideas. They want something to make them sit up and pay attention. You can't do that with a clichÃ©.
A clichÃ© can also refer to an overused character type, a plot, or a twist. Here are some examples:
Overused Plot Points and Story Devices
Beginnings - Using any of these to set the first scene: full moon (usually half-obscured by clouds), a howling wind, a storm with lightning/thunder.
Car breaks down on lonely road. Either the car just happens to break down or run out of gas, or some wild animal chooses that moment to dive out of the shrubbery and the mc totals the car to avoid it. Uh, yeah, right...
Characters makes dumb decisions. When characters seem to lose all common sense and choose to do the wrong thing, just so the author can put them in more trouble. This is brilliantly illustrated in the parody "Scary Movie" when a girl running from the killer sees two signs: "Danger" and "Safety" -- and picks the direction to danger. (Love those silly movies. )
The villain's explanation. The villain captures the hero but takes the time to explain why he did things instead of just killing him.
Coincidences: Slipping/falling just when the monster is near. Illness/fainting just when the monster is near. Shocked look on a friend's face leads to the deadpan comment: "The monster's right behind me, isn't it?" And it is.
Portals. Doors/mirrors/closets are portals to another world. Been done to death. Find a new way to get to that other dimension.
Surprise character revelation. The vampire/werewolf/or monster chases down his prey only to discover the intended victim is also a vampire/werewolf/or monster.
Twist Ending ClichÃ©s:
Main Character dies in the end. I see this a lot. It's especially annoying when the story is written in past tense. If the guy's dead, who's writing/telling the story? Using this ending basically says: Meh. I didn't like my mc much anyway, and I got too tired of writing the story to figure anything else out. If you don't care, why should your readers?
It was all a dream. This was a shock to readers when it was first used in the short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," by Ambrose Bierce, in 1890. Over a hundred years ago, people. Don't expect it to surprise readers anymore. It'll just annoy them.
Time resets itself to the beginning. No ending, just a permanent loop. A permanent, boring loop.
Multiple Personality or Secret Twin. Main Character has a split personality and is really the monster/murderer. Or the secret twin shows up (that the reader never knew existed) and that explains why it only seemed the hero was killing all those people.
It was a ghost! "You talked to her yesterday? That's impossible! She died ten years ago!" No, not scary anymore. This ghost-story ending has become a clichÃ©.
For more on identifying clichÃ©s, check out these links:
Strange Horizons:Horror Stories We've Seen Too Often
Strange Horizons:Stories We've Seen Too Often
Andromeda Spaceways: What We Want and Don't
Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA): Turkey City Lexicon
Full disclosure: I'm not immune to using some of these myself. I admit to putting these overused ideas in some of my writing:
The group splitting up to investigate noises or look for clues. (Goes under the heading "Characters make dumb decisions.")
Lights that don't work, forcing everyone to wander around with flashlights/candles and making it easier for the monster to get them.
People hanging around a place they know is dangerous because they have to (insert dumb reason here).
How to Fix a ClichÃ©
Now that you have a good idea what a clichÃ© is, and you've located some in your writing (Oh, no! ), what do you do about it?
First, don't be too hard on yourself. People have been writing since they had charcoal to scribble on cave walls. Everything's been done before, and it's really hard to come up with something new and original.
Second, don't lose hope. You don't necessarily have to delete the clichÃ©. You can take it and twist it around or mix it up -- then it's not a clichÃ© anymore. It's yours, and it's original.
If the clichÃ© is a phrase
Simply tweak it. If your phrase is "crack of dawn," use a thesaurus to look up words for 'crack,' 'dawn,' or anything to do with your target idea. Maybe inspiration will strike and you'll come up with something fresh.
Take it and make it personal for the character. You know his/her backstory, so instead of using something tired, like 'black as night,' use something that would be in their experience. For example: if he's a secret agent/soldier, what black things would he have seen? Black as a bullet-hole or black as a fire-scorched corpse. What if your mc's a typical high-school girl? Try: black as eyeliner or black as Fergie's roots.
Mold the clichÃ© to your particular scene/character. For instance, instead of using "black as night" try:
Her black hair swung forward, eclipsing half her face.
The maestro laughed, black gaps between his teeth making his grin resemble piano keys.
If the clichÃ© is a plot point
Add some realism or a different circumstance. Let's say your characters are in the haunted house, and all the lights suddenly go out. Yup, that's a clichÃ©. It's usually assumed that the killer cut the power or it's just a random act of nature, probably a lightning strike from the storm at the clichÃ© beginning. Okay, you can change this up by giving a reason for the power outage: maybe one of the characters plugged his charger into a too-full outlet or someone knocked a lamp into the aquarium. (Poor fishies. ) Maybe instead of the lights going out, a noxious odor fills the house and everyone tears up and can't see. If there's no possible explanation for a smell, you could have one of the characters accidentally set off his/her can of mace, something brought to the house for protection.
Take the clichÃ© and turn it upside down. If your mc is supposed to get stranded on a deserted road, change the setting to a city where one wrong turn leads him into a complex of lonely alleyways or empty warehouses.
Add another twist after the clichÃ©d one. If the hero is a multiple-personality killer, have the psychiatrist who treats him turn out to be the real killer.
ClichÃ©s make a story/novel tired and predictable. Readers want new and interesting ideas.
Read lists of clichÃ©s -- tired phrases, plot points based on coincidence, and overused twists that don't surprise anyone anymore -- so you can spot them in your writing.
Once you found the little beasties, fix 'em! Change phrases to alternate wording, use more detailed descriptions from your character's own experience, find realistic reasons and explanations instead of using 'coincidences,' add a new original twist at the end.
Don't stress out too much. Thinking up fresh ideas is hard, but if you take your time and let your imagination roam free, you'll be able to come up with new things and be proud of yourself in the end.
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
** I'm taking a vacation in June. I'll be back with another Horror Newsletter in July!! **
Here are some stories and poems that poke fun at clichÃ©s by using them!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter!
Lilithmoon☽ writes: What a fantastic Newsletter! I enjoyed it so much. I struggle with descriptive narrative more so than any other aspect of writing. I am a very concise writer. I am always searching for the perfect word or phrase, so I can leave the rest up to the reader's imagination. I like to give a sense of the atmosphere and leave physical descriptions open for the reader's interpretation. I believe an important part of what makes a good story is leaving room for the reader to populate it with people and surroundings familiar to themselves. In other words, atmosphere is incredibly important. I am looking forward to your next NL.
Thanks so much for the feedback! You're absolutely right that description is tough and knowing what to leave out is as important as knowing what to put in.
Michael Thomas-Knight writes: Thanks for the excellent newsletter and great examples for relaying atmosphere. It is something that many writers don't do enough of, and I often do too much! I like the examples that show how you can relay the atmosphere of a place in a couple of sentences. The breakdown of word choices was excellent, too. I'm going to keep this in my inbox and read it every so often to keep it fresh in my mind, especially when I am writing my next piece.
Especially in Horror, it's very easy to over-describe. We want so much to scare our readers that we pull out all the stops. It can take many revisions to trim and rewrite to get just the right balance of action, dialog and description. Happy writing!
Vampyr14 writes: Fantastic examples of how the same setting can be made atmospheric with a few well chosen words.
Exactly, Vamp! No reason to write reams when a cleverly crafted sentence can be even more powerful.
Taniuska writes: Great newsletter... this is something I always struggle with... not dumping settings, but incorporating them into action, along with emotions. It's tricky, for sure. Your examples are excellent.
Thanks, Tania! That means a lot coming from you -- you're such an awesome Horror writer!
Steph Dim Witt Bee writes: I loved your examples on atmosphere. Good economy words and you definitely set a mood with the examples. Well done.
Ooh, that's high praise coming from a pubbed Romance/Paranormal writer. Thanks so much, and best wishes for your continued success!
Inksquatch: The Missing (L)ink writes: Laura -
Absolutely wonderful stuff re: atmosphere! Love how you contrast the different moods, which, ironically, put me in a good one...
Happy to oblige -- keep that good mood and write lots of Horror. Your stories are scary!
embryo writes: Hey! I just have to tell you how fantastic this issue is. Each time I open the raw draft of a new story and I begin to work on it, I also look up this newsletter. You couldn't have summarized this part of writing in a better way. I use your newsletter like a reference. It gets me started, and then I build, build, build... You did a wonderful job with this chapter of the horror newsletter.
Thanks so much! I'm thrilled to think I can give you a nudge and have you soar off on your own. Yay Horror writers!
BIG BAD WOLF is Feeling Lucky submits: "What a Nightmare!" and writes: The scariest of things are those in your head.
Yeah, unless there's an axe-murderer standing over you with ... well ... an axe!
Scarpello submits "Decaying Trees" and writes: I think this write may be worthy of this kind of submission. Hope you enjoy!!
Lovely poetry. Thanks for submitting.
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