Sunday, March 15, 2009

Creative Writing 101: Kill the Cliché

Much of my time writing is spent eradicating clichés in my prose. This is the core of good writing, the non-cliché. Clichés suck the life out of your writing, filling your sentences and paragraphs, and eventually entire manuscripts, with useless words.

Why the vitriol? Why not? I’ve read far too many published novels, articles, and memoirs filled with vast stretches of nothingness, empty calories of words that act as stand-ins for actual writing. Every time I read a cliché I get angry. Especially when it’s in my own work: I should know better. I have to.

What is a cliché?

Clichés are boilerplate phrases; overused terms and maxims that have become part of popular vernacular. Sayings that you use and hear everyday. Familiar shorthand born of laziness. Clichés are an easy out: why write what you really mean when there are stand-in words that resemble the same thing without you having to personally commit to them? There’s no emotional outcome or repercussions for the reader because you didn't give them anything real. It’s nothing personal because it doesn’t mean anything to begin with. Plug and play. Live and learn.

Clichés work in the real world because that’s the way people talk. Dialogue in prose is allowed to be rife with clichés, as long as the narrative drive of the story or novel does not rely on cliché, sentence to sentence.

Let’s take a look at a cliché, something I read in a book just today, in a mystery/police procedural (a genre I don’t usually read, but I’m reviewing it for this blog). “He was lying of course, it was written all over him.” Can you spot the cliché? The overused term, the shorthand for what the author really meant to say? Sure, it’s “…it was written all over him.” We’ve all heard this a thousand times. We’ve said these words in this order. We’ve heard it on TV and in movies. Why is this a cliché? Because it doesn’t say what the author intended. It wasn’t actually written all over him. If it were, it would be on his forehead, and down his arm, and across his stomach. What was the author thinking? He wasn’t. He dropped it in there as a placeholder, and never bothered to rewrite it.

Why is this a bad thing?

“…it was written all over him,” is a bad way of writing because it’s lazy. Instead of describing what is actually happening to the character, the author is plugging in generalities that he hopes the reader will reflect her own feelings onto. “…it was written all over him,…Oh, dude. That means this guy couldn’t hide a thing, he spilled the beans, he was an open book.” Really? Well what the hell does that mean? Generalities are prose death. Writers had better write what they mean, or it won’t mean a thing. Limp words, fake motivations, obvious emotions, ending in a whole lot of nothing.

Instead of writing the words “…it was written all over him,” what words should the author have used? Good question. When I use cliché placeholders, I anticipate taking out the cliché when I revise the work. Meaning, during the first draft I come up with the feeling, the emotion at the moment, even though I may not know what words to use to convey the feeling. Later, I’ll come back with clinical, objective eyes, and cut these words down to what is really happening. Slice it to the bone. Hopefully I will evince the true emotional complexity of the characters in the scene without falling back on cliché.

Let’s take another look: “He was lying of course, I could tell by the way he blinked as he answered my questions, rubbing his arms red.” I have no idea if this is how you tell if somebody is lying. But, in the fictive world of this detective, it is how I’ve chosen to convey lying. Why wouldn’t the author take the extra time and word count to describe this? Because the author is lazy. Or he is writing on a deadline, has already spent his advance, and doesn’t have time to make his writing as good as it should be.

When a cliché is okay to use

Normal people talk in clichés. Your characters are more than welcome to talk in clichés. That’s, well, normal. Clichés in internal monologue are okay too, but don’t overdo it. In general, cut them all out.

Sometimes clichés are borderline. How about, “She burst into tears.” Is this a cliché? Should you let this stand or rewrite it? Well, that’s a tough call. I might let it stand. People do spontaneously cry. The downside of trying to eradicate all form of cliché is overwriting, which is just as bad or worse. How do we rewrite the above sentence? “Suddenly her eyes watered, and she forced out a shriek as her body rhythmically convulsed to the waves of tears she seemingly had no control over.” Well, aside from the mortal sin of using suddenly, it’s not successful on most levels. A time waster for all involved. The writer probably took way too long to come up with alternate ways of saying, “She burst into tears.” And the reader; well, if she hasn’t put your book down already, is giving it some deep consideration after this.

Time, the cliché’s biggest enemy

Unsure if you write in clichés? What kind of books do you read? Genre fiction writers tend to use more clichés. Are they bad writers? Difficult to tell. It’s hard to write a good book when you have to deliver one book every year or two. When a manuscript is tucked away in a drawer for a few months or a year instead of getting sent directly to an editor after a few drafts, it has time to gestate. And so does the writer.

Time away from a story gives you a distance that allows you to come back and look at writing with a clinical eye. You forget the emotions you experienced when you originally put your words to paper. You can see more clearly when plot, dialogue, and other devices aren’t working. The sentiment you were working hard for is gone, and you can see plainly what works and what doesn’t. Dialogue that you knew was meaningful yet realistic now comes across as hackneyed, pointless. Your writing will be truer, higher quality, when you take more time to write it.

Clichés are afraid of time. Clichés want you to finish your book in six months and send it off with minimal revision. That way you are more apt to stick with the generalities that you devised the first time around. But, when you spend more time revising, you can eventually wash out most clichés, staying true to your story.

What Do I Mean By True?

All good writers are honest. Clichés are dishonest. Have I gotten my point across? Still lost? Still pissed off at me for insulting you or at yourself for recognizing how often you use them? Think of it this way: clichés represent the worst form of writing because they rob the reader of a true reading experience. It’s a Big Mac instead of filet mignon. It’s all gristle, nothing tasty. It’s artificial sweetener, not pure sugar.

It’s describing a character as being “gorgeous,” and having all the other characters agree, without describing this perfect creature. What makes somebody gorgeous? One man’s gorgeous is another’s meh. Say what you mean. Describe how this woman is attractive to the narrator. “When she smiled, dimples danced, and her eyes crinkled to happy almond shapes. Her laugh was guttural, real, and just for me. She curled her hair around her finger, at once nervous and anticipatory.” I don’t know, you take it from here.

But you get the picture. Take your time, write what you mean. Your future readers will thank you for it.


Liz's Mom said...

This was a breath of fresh air, a true eye opener, a bolt from the blue, and the cat's meow.

(I liked it very very much. And one of the things I like best about your writing is its freedom from hackneyed phrases.)

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Great post with some excellent advice! ;)

Robin said...

Dell -- Your piece was a bolt out of the blue! (oops, I think that was a cliche rearing its ugly head). I think this is wonderful and would love to use it with my writing classes.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks for reading Liz's mom and Cynthia. Robin, you're welcome to it.

Justin C said...

What a great article. I've only been writing seriously for about a year, but am desperately trying to get good enough in time to get into an mfa program next year. I still struggle with the fact that there's no winging it when it comes to writing sincere and honest prose, but this article is a good reminder. Thanks for that.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks for reading, Justin. Good luck getting into the writing program of your dreams. And if you don't get in, don't fret. You can always write, MFA or no.