Category Archives: Writer’s Craft

How to stop using clichés in fiction

Charlie Peverett, Cliché box, Flickr

Charlie Peverett, Cliché box, Flickr

Cut clichés. That’s an early lesson we writers learn, and for good reason. Clichéd phrases cheapen our writing. They may be helpful in everyday speech, so instantly recognizable that they’re like the traffic signs of language. But it’s precisely because they’re so glaring that they are toxic to the written word: they are trite, overused, unoriginal. If watching out for clichés is on your revision checklist, it’s easy enough to spot them:

  • Better late than never
  • A clean slate
  • Down and out
  • Icing on the cake
  • Keep an eye on
  • Live and learn
  • On the tip of my tongue
  • Too good to be true

Just to name a few. (If they’re not on your revision checklist, now might be a good time to add that. There’s no time like the present.) I don’t want to give the impression that you should never, under any circumstances, include a cliché in your writing. They do have a place when used intentionally. If you’re trying to achieve a certain tone or voice in a piece, cliché’s can help you do that. Used in character dialogue, clichés can give readers a strong sense of personality or setting. But reading a story riddled with unintentional clichés can quickly start to feel cheap and unsatisfying.

But clichéd phrases aren’t the only kinds of cliché that can sneak into our writing. What about stereotypes, overused tropes, and outworn genre conventions? Have you read a book’s back cover and promptly reshelved it, thinking, “Oh, I’ve read that before”? It’s this type of cliché that I want to focus on because it’s so easy to find them slipping into our stories. I wrote a short story not long ago, revised it a few times, and still found myself frustrated by how blasé it felt. So, trying to get a fresh perspective, I submitted it to my writing group for critique. They pointed out that one of my main characters was a pretty blatant stereotype, and they were right! He was right there under my nose It was obvious, but I couldn’t see it.

So, when we do find these in our writing, what can we do about them? One technique I’ve found incredibly helpful is to employ nuance. Stereotypes, like clichéd phrases, exist for a reason—because they’re almost accurate, they reflect a type of person or experience in the real world. But the inaccuracy of a stereotype lies in its rejection of nuance. So, yes there are ditzy cheerleaders and dumb jocks and nerdy gamers and soccer moms and workaholics . . . but what if you don’t have to chuck them out completely? What if they’re variations on a theme? Maybe your ditzy cheerleader was raised by a single dad and can change her own oil and fix a flat tire without calling her boyfriend. Maybe your nerdy gamer comes from a long line of famous chefs, so he can make a flawless six course French meal. Can you see the possibilities? Add an extra trait, another dimension, and you can see new avenues opening up or old ones rewriting themselves. To get to that place, though, of thinking differently about your characters and storylines, teasing out the possibilities is often the next step. One way is to ask yourself questions to get the ideas flowing. See if any of the following questions help you think a little more deeply about stereotypical characters or overused plot lines:

  • What else?
    • What else is possible for this character?
    • What else is in their past that makes them unique?
    • What else might they like or believe or long for that would make them more complex or that might explain their behavior?
  • What am I overlooking?
    • What is at this character’s deepest psyche that I’m not seeing?
    • What is he or she most afraid of?
    • What is this character’s greatest wish/highest ambition?
  • What’s unexpected?
    • What could happen to this character that would shake him to his core?
    • What thing, if she lost it, would completely transform this character’s life?
    • How can this character’s problem be heightened even more/what would push it to the next level?

If you’ve done this revision work already and had no success, then maybe it’s just time to start over. Sometimes that’s the best thing, but it’s worth the creative exercise to try fiddling with it first.

This is the hard work of writing and revising, right? It’s easy to be attached to our characters and storylines as they are and just ignore that nagging feeling when they’re too easy or too obvious or whatever it is that’s making them cliché. But that doesn’t serve our efforts to be strong writers or to thrill and enlighten our readers. There’s a phrase in yoga that I think is useful to the writing craft too: “Play your edge.” In any given yoga pose, that means you come to the absolute edge of what you can do in that moment, and then you hold the pose, grow in that space, rise to a new level of strength and flexibility.

 

How can you play to your edge in your work-in-progress or in a self-identified weakness in your craft? What other techniques have you used to work through clichéd prose or story problems?

-Paige Duke

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The Frenzy, The Insanity, The Insomnia

Image from unwire.com.

Image from unwire.com.

Sometimes passion is a good thing. Like when you’re reciting vows to your future spouse or holding your newborn for the first time. And yes, even when you want to write a book.

Passion is beneficial most of the time. It keeps you doing what you love without any recognition, without any compensation, and without any definite payoff. It enables you to do what you love for free because that’s the only thing you’d do for free. You do it without any real promise of a future, because you believe in yourself enough to make the future.

But what passion really boils down to in my life, is going freaking insane. It’ll happen to you if you’re the creative type – you just wait. You’ll be out having drinks with your friends, maybe even a significant other, and all of the sudden the most awesome plot twist ever will pop into your head, and you’ll be so frazzled that you won’t even know where you are, what day it is, and what you’re drinking. You’ll have to go to the bathroom just so no one sees you scribbling notes on your phone in a frenzy, like your life depends on it. Or you might entrust Siri with the task and use the voice texting option. But you’ll end up with numerous typos. Instead of “skilled man” you might get, “are you still a man?”

And a few minutes later, maybe 30, you’ll walk out with a smile on your face and a compulsory itch to write more. Don’t worry, your friends will just think you’re drunk.

You might forget about it for a second over your Mai Tai, but God forbid you want to sleep. The minute your head touches your pillow you’ll be thinking of that plot twist again. But you’ll think of more than that. You’ll think of how that plot twist changes the whole story line, changes your character arc, and how basically, you’re not even writing the same book.

So you’ll go to bed at like 5 a.m. to wake up at 7 a.m. and go to work like a zombie, and everyone will just think you’ve been out drinking too much. Little do they know.

You’ll promise yourself that you’ll sleep the next night, because that night you’ll have to. But when your head touches the pillow again, your book will find you. In your sleep. It will hunt you down and try to kill you.

Because writing a book means becoming a slave to it. It’s hard to keep your head above water when your passion is pulling you under. And as much as writers like to complain, it’s a beautiful kind of misery.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

-Dani Nicole

 

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How a Victorian Engineer Inspired My Protagonist

I should have known by his name that this man would be the larger-than-life figure I needed as inspiration for my protagonist. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. You’re destined for greatness with a name like that. And I needed some real-world greatness to help me lay a foundation for my protagonist. In my previous post, “Research: An Antidote for Writers Block,” I wrote about using research to solve some of the structural problems in the world of my fantasy novel. I scoured the Internet for notable figures from the Victorian Era and stumbled onto Brunel. I had found my man: an influential engineer whose name, work, and character lived far beyond the reach of his natural lifetime. Not only did he create some of the most innovative and memorable structures of the Victorian Industrial Age, but he stood out among his contemporaries as a person of tireless vision and ambition, even from a young age.

Twenty-one years old. I was still in college . . . changing my major, how about you? What were you doing at twenty-one? This man, I.K. Brunel, was already working as resident engineer on the construction of the Thames Tunnel. Can you imagine?

Thames Tunnel, Lithograph by Taulman after Bonisch (public domain)

Thames Tunnel, Lithograph by Taulman after Bonisch (public domain)

He was working alongside his father, Marc Brunel, a prominent engineer of the time, who had invented a tunneling shield that made building the underwater tunnel possible. It was the first of its kind and, at its opening in 1843, it was named the Eighth Wonder of the World. But the road to success wasn’t always glorious—the tunnel flooded during the third year of construction, and six of the crew were killed; Brunel barely survived when his assistant pulled his unconscious body from the water. It wouldn’t be the last time Brunel found himself in a tough spot.

From there, he worked on the Bristol Clifton Suspension Bridge. Like the Thames Tunnel, it was a record breaker—the longest bridge in the world at the time it was built. Brunel, then twenty-three years old, submitted one design after another and found himself battling the design put up by Thomas Telford, a well-known engineer in his seventies and the chair of the Clifton committee. But in the end Brunel won the commission. As if that David-and-Goliath-scale victory weren’t enough, he gained more notoriety with his next stunt. During construction, someone had the brilliant idea to string up a 1,000-foot iron bar that would carry a basket back and forth to bring supplies across the chasm. And guess who volunteered to test it? Yep, Brunel—he climbed into the basket and set off across the gorge, and it was going well . . . until the rope snagged. So he climbed out and freed it so he could get across. He was stranded, what else could he do, right? Needless to say, people took notice.

Clifton Suspension Bridge, illustration (public domain)

Clifton Suspension Bridge, illustration (public domain)

So you can imagine by now what kind of man we’re talking about. Now think bigger, much bigger. As in Titanic. Before the infamous steamship was a twinkle in Thomas Andrews’ eye, I.K. Brunel was dreaming of The Great Western. He was convinced he could carry a passenger across the Atlantic by steam power—not so remarkable to a twenty-first century mind, but at the time it had never been done and . . . Brunel had never before designed a ship. Though he was opposed, ridiculed, and badly burned during construction, he saw the ship completed and arriving in New York from London in 1838. Oh and, by the way, it was the longest ship in the world.

SS Great Western (public domain)

SS Great Western (public domain)

The rest of Brunel’s life followed a similar trajectory of one innovative project after another. And it was this more than anything that drew me to him as a character of history: he was a man with astounding imagination, who broke through the boundaries of the known world, and the challenges of his own life, to pioneer a way into the future as we know it. I relied on details from Brunel’s life—engineering competitions, the setup of a drafting office, techniques of shipbuilding—to help construct my protagonist’s life and work, though the challenges he faces are of a more fantastical nature. Still, he has the heartbeat of men like Brunel: ambitious, visionary, groundbreaking. After all, it’s what makes us love them and root for them no matter where we find them.

Brunel with the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern, his later and most famous ship (public domain)

Brunel with the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern, his later and most famous ship (public domain)

How about you? Where did the ideas for your characters or other narrative elements come from? Did you look into history to find inspiration or another place entirely?

 

– Paige Duke