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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Conquering the Cliche

Editor's note: I'm nose-deep in edits of my latest project... and I'm finding myself in need of some of my own advice. Enjoy the reposting of a much-needed lesson!

Whether a plotter or a pantser, a novice or a pro, every writer will eventually do the same exact thing—and that's stare at the screen, fingers poised over keyboard, planning a character's next move.

How you handle your character's next move will set you apart from the rest of the writing masses. Genre matters not; length matters not. What matters is whether or not that next move is a cliché.

A cliché is any expression, idea, or element that has been overused to the point of losing its original intent or effect. There are the obvious clichés, namely those turns of phrase that get used over and over (whoops, that was cliché).

They are comparisons and references and descriptions that are so overused that they render the very language empty and boring.

While clichés are most often recognized as those annoying catch phrases, they can also relate to larger things like character and dialog and plot. Clichés are wicked little buggers that weaken our writing and writers should do their best to find them—and fix them.

Do The Unexpected

Clichés are often found hiding in plain sight (another cliché) whenever we let our characters act naturally—and these are the clichés that doom us to failure (probably cliché).

By acting naturally, I refer to the character doing what feels perfectly natural to us. I like to call it "First Response Syndrome", an unhealthy story condition wherein the character acts upon his/her first—and therefore natural—response to a situation or stimulus.

When a character does exactly what we expect them to do, remember this—every other reader on the planet (cliché) is expecting them to do it, too. And that's kinda boring.

Say your character is waiting for a bus that doesn't seem to be slowing down for her stop.
  • The natural response is to let her wait safely on the curb so she doesn't get flattened.
  • The unexpected action would be if the woman takes off her shoe and throws it at the bus, cracking the windshield. That's more interesting.
  • More interesting, still, would be if the character jumped into the middle of the street and made the bus driver slam on the brakes (technically a cliché but you know what I mean).
Do the unexpected.

Of course, there's a difference between unexpected and ridiculous. You wouldn't have an arthritic ninety-year old grandma jump into the street to stop traffic. (Unless, of course, we only thought she was a ninety-year old grandma but was instead an escaped acrobat who's on the lam (cliché) and wearing a disguise. That is so not cliché.)

But, as I said—ridiculous is not a good thing and you don't want to pull the reader out of the story. You just want to keep them on the edge of their seat (cliché).

Actions aren't the only things that can be cliché in this fashion. Dialog can be cliché, too, even when it doesn't contain any overused expressions. Any character who says what we expect them to say suffers from First Response Syndrome and is in dire need (cliché) of a rewrite. Don't allow your teen protagonist to be a carbon-copy (cliché) of every other teen you know. Forbid your villain the pleasure of twisting his mustache and howling his favorite mu-hahaha laugh (no matter how cool it sounds, it's cliché.)

Breaking The Habit

It takes effort to break a bad habit (cliché) like writing in cliché. However, the story will reap the rewards (cliché) if you can train yourself to spot them and fix them by doing the unexpected.

For instance, doing the unexpected may cause your character to come to a realization about themselves or someone else. An unexpected response may lead to heightened emotions. An unexpected response may tell the reader something about a character's makeup that would otherwise take pages of description—in short, an unexpected response would show a quality that the writer might otherwise be compelled to tell.

Try this exercise: select a portion of your manuscript and print it out. Using a highlighter, mark everything that seems it might be cliché—look for those expressions that are done to death (cliché), scour your dialog for trite or dull responses, and mark off every reaction to a stimulus.

Then, evaluate each instance of highlighted text. Think of a different way to write over those overused phrases. Add color to dialog using emotion and fresh language. Make your character do the exact opposite of their original response.
Do any of the rewrites heighten tension? Make the character seem more interesting? Take the story in a new direction? If it's more interesting to you as the writer, it's going to be more interesting to the reader, as well.

What a lot of us fail to realize is that sometimes our stories get rejected not because our writing is bad but because our work is clichéd. Good isn't acceptable anymore—our work has to be great.

Our characters need dialog that is fresh and original and our characters have to be ready to do the unexpected. Thinking past the first response will add an element of surprise and excitement to your work—and a reader who has to keep reading to find out what happens next is the reader that stayed hooked.

A hooked reader—that's not a cliché... because that never gets old.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. Visit Ash at www.ashkrafton.com for news on her urban fantasy series The Books of the Demimonde (Pink Narcissus Press). Her paranormal romance WORDS THAT BIND (The Wild Rose Press) is now available.

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