A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post for Author Allsorts called DASTARDLY TROPES & WHAT TO DO WITH THEM, all about how to tell tropes from archetypes from clichés (and which ones we need to destroy, preferably with fire). Since that post received a warm reception when it went online, I’ve decided to resurrect and combine two workshops that I wrote a couple of years ago on the topic of clichés – or rather, on how to isolate and kill them.
First up: clichés at prose level.
It was a white knuckle ride
My heart sank into my stomach
She was as white as a ghost
I had a snowball in Hell’s chance
It’s not that there is, at the base level, anything wrong with any of these phrases. Once, each of them was so original, startlingly apposite, and useful, that everyone who read them said: WOW. And promptly stole them for their own writing, or to use in every day conversation – which is where things went wrong.
Constant over-use creates a sort of blindness in the reader to the original meaning of the phrase or description. When a reader sees that familiar collection of words? That is ALL they see. The words. The phrase is so familiar that it no longer evokes an image or a feeling, as it should. For instance, when we read ‘Pale as a ghost’, we no longer visualise a person so bloodless that they look unearthly and almost translucent. The description is empty – just a placeholder in the text – telling us nothing at all about the character or situation. The writer might as well just have written: Beth was pale. That’s all any reader is going to get from it.
Language is the tool which writers use to gain access to a reader’s emotions. It’s the only tool we have. Used to its fullest extent, we can make the words on the page seem to disappear, allow the reader to fall headfirst into our imagined world, cause them to gasp with an ‘eye-ball kick’ (where an image or emotion shoots directly into their mind, as if they’d really seen or experienced it).
Clichés are like an uncleaned window or a foggy mist standing in the way of that effect, obscuring everything bright and brilliant about your work. Clichés are when language becomes a barrier to what you really want to say.
Now, having established this: please don’t think I’m telling you that you need to spend half an hour agonising over finding entirely new and original ways to phrase every single line of your story, especially when you’re drafting it. Quite often at the first draft stage, ideas are coming so fast – or alternately, so slowly and with such grinding in your brain – that you might shove a whole raft of over-used, tired phrases in there, just so you can keep going. And that’s fine. Getting bogged down at the creative stage isn’t what this is about.
Revision is the key to eliminating tired, bland phrases from your work.
When you re-read your completed manuscript with a view to sharing it with other people (whether that’s agents/editors or your beta-readers or writers group) you need to make sure that your eyes don’t do the exact same thing your readers eyes will do, and skim over a cliché without even noticing it’s there. Anytime you find yourself skipping over a line, stop, go back, and see why that is. Chances are it’s because you’ve used a meaningless placeholder piece of dialogue, description or exposition.
So when you come across these clichéd phrases in your work (and you will) what do you do? Those clichés are probably in there in the first place because you’re so used to seeing and hearing certain phrases used to describe certain things that you can’t think of any better – any other – way to describe them. How else *can* you describe a white knuckle ride than by calling it a white knuckle ride? It’s a white knuckle ride! That’s what it IS. Right?
At this point you need to do something incredibly basic. Stop. Take a breath. And try to remember what you actually wanted to say.
Does this seem so blindingly obvious that it’s useless? Think again, my muffins. The only way to kill clichés is to go back to before you allowed your thoughts to be chained down in those boring, predictable words that everyone and their Aunt Maud has been using for fifty years and get at what you were originally attempting to convey to your reader. You wanted to make them think, right? You wanted to make them feel. What image, what emotion, what concept was in your mind when you wrote this line? Figure it out, and then look at what ended up on the page – and confront the difference.
Example: “Ranjit gasped with shock.”
Really? Is that what you actually want to convey to the reader – that your character reacted to this shock with exactly the same reaction as every other character who had a shock, ever? If something has just jumped out of the shadows at Ranjit, or another character has just confided something horrifying, the reader is smart enough to work out that Ranjit is shocked. Tell them something they don’t know.
How is this person reacting to the shock and what does that say about them? Maybe Ranjit was so shocked that he felt as if someone had punched him in the stomach? That’s become a bit of a cliché too, but at least it’s a slightly better one, one that tells us something meaningful about how Ranjit’s shock affected him.
Strip it back a bit more. What does being punched in the stomach really feel like? Are you talking about this character literally staggering back, or maybe you mean that his stomach cramps up and makes him hunch over? That’s a reaction we can actually visualise, and sympathise with.
Having gotten this far, let’s strip it back still further. What’s going on in Ranjit’s head, right now? Is he scared-shocked? Appalled shocked? Laughing-shocked? That’s going to have a big effect on how he feels and how you should describe his reaction.
Maybe Ranjit is shocked because he’s learned that his friend is dead. In the instant when this terrible news hits him, Ranjit is so stunned that he feels like everything’s gone quiet, like he’s gone deaf. That’s his brain trying, too late, to block out news that he doesn’t want to know, that he can’t cope with.
So Ranjit gets a terrible pain in his stomach that causes him to hunch over, and feels as if his ears have stopped working. By telling us that, in plain and simple language, without any clichés, you’ll convey to your reader the thing you actually wanted to say in the first place: that Ranjit is devastated by what he’s heard.
We’ve gone from:
“Ranjit gasped with shock, staring at Sandeep as if he couldn’t believe his ears.” (Reader reaction – BOOORING)
“Sandeep’s lips were still moving, but Ranjit couldn’t hear his voice. Everything seemed to have fallen silent, a terrible, echoing silence, roaring in his head. His midsection cramped agonisingly and he doubled over, staring at his shoes as he tried to breathe.” (Reader reaction – Um…wow. Poor guy)
By stripping back the clichéd descriptions and getting at what you really wanted us to feel for the character, you’ve shown us something that has the potential to move us. A character moment that makes us empathise and think maybe we know just how he feels.
But it’s more than that. This description of how Ranjit reacts to learning about his friend’s death tells us a lot about Ranjit himself, about who he is. That’s every good writer’s ultimate goal, to convey worthwhile information about character in each line of their story. Someone who punches a wall when they hear this terrible news would be very different to Ranjit. Someone who passes out would be different. Someone who angrily turns on the bearer of bad news and refuses to believe them would be different. Someone who blindly wanders away before the bearer of bad news could even finish speaking would be different.
The cliche “He gasped with shock” tells the reader nothing – whereas a good description has the potential to tell the reader everything.
Real Talk: you probably can’t do this for every single cliché in your book. You may have noticed that while the tired description took up one line there, the good piece took three lines. There are times when, in order to pick up the pace in your story, you will need to allow the reader’s eye to skate. There are also times when a reaction or an event isn’t that important, when you don’t need or want to shove the reader straight into the character’s place. But when you’re depicting important events, when you’re writing key scenes of action or emotion, make an effort to comb through them and catch the clichés. Then kill those suckers so that your story has room to live.
Second up: clichés at the structural level.
Oh ho, so you thought clichés were just bland, meaningless phrases lurking within your prose that disconnected the reader from the brilliance and emotional intensity of your ideas? No, no, my little crumpet. Clichés can also get between *you* and your ideas.
Let’s say you have this idea that’s been nagging at you to be written. Like all ideas, it’s a bit random and bitty, and there are a lot of gaps that you need to fill in.
You know that you want to write a book about… let’s say… a girl who takes over running her grandfather’s antique store for an afternoon, and who finds an unusual object there. Maybe as she’s looking at it, trying to work out what it is, some mysterious guys break in and try to take it. The heroine runs, taking the object with her. She bumps into this person she knows from school and he gets caught up in it too. They need to find out what the object is and why these dudes want it, but when they go to the girl’s grandfather’s flat, the place is ransacked and he’s missing. Adventures ensue.
What a great set-up! Conflict and mystery and budding romance! Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?
Yeah no, sorry – this is exactly where things start to go wrong.
Because as soon as I said grandfather and antique shop you saw an elderly, balding guy in a cardigan and a dusty, dark old store, didn’t you? It’s OK, you can admit it. There’s nothing wrong with a doddery old grandpa and a dusty old shop, after all. You could start there.
But what about the object? When I said artifact your brain probably went a few places. Indiana Jones. Lara Croft. The Mummy. You’re seeing something ancient, with untapped powers or a ghost or a curse attached.
And the mysterious dudes who break into the shop? Well, they’re all middle-aged white guys in black, wearing dark glasses, yeah?
That school acquaintance the heroine bumps into is obviously a handsome action-hero in waiting. He’ll protect her, and of course they’ll fall in love!
Oh, the girl? Well… I guess she’s pretty, and nice and… er… probably likes to read? Whatever.
Please excuse me while I fall into a coma induced by utter boredom.
There’s nothing there which isn’t an echo of something everyone has seen before. The characters, the setting, the way the story turns out… it’s completely generic. Our interesting idea just withered and died under the suffocating weight of clichés.
If you want to avoid writing clichés, you need to stop and question the way that characters ‘just come to you’ and the way that stories ‘just seem to naturally play out’. Don’t reach for the first idea that occurs to you, that familiar situation and set-up that feels right because you’ve seen it a hundred times before. Don’t assume that ‘the way things always happen’ is the only satisfying way they can happen. Or should happen.
You’re in charge here! Nothing goes on the page unless you’ve mentally signed off on it. You must learn to fill in the gaps of your potential stories with something that is uniquely YOU. Something that makes you laugh or tear up or go wide-eyed or just grin. Something that expresses the unique person you are and allows you to write the unique stories only you are able to imagine.
Toss out the doddery old guy and his cardigan. You know in real life grandpas are people, and that means they’re as diverse as any other human beings. So approach grandpa as a character, not a stock character from Casting Central.
What if he’s a fit, frisky ladies man who wears loud Hawaiian shirts and likes to do a little soft-shoe shuffle, causing all the local ladies to swoon? What if he’s a giant uber-geek – a silver surfer and gamer – with millions of online friends all over the world? What if his store sells movie replica weapons, StarWars and StarTrek memorabilia, signed props and vintage computer games? (Hmm, I’m imagining Patrick Stewart in the role all of a sudden).
Suddenly the whole set-up comes to life. What we have here is a character – not a cliché. And from that character, a unique and interesting setting grows. Already things are looking up.
Well, it really could be ANYTHING now, right? The possibilities are endless. And as soon as you start trying to figure out why a bunch of people would be after a mint condition Luke Skywalker figurine you find you have a rather unique plot on your hands.
Why are these people even after the object? Who are they? What are their thoughts and feelings? What if they’re not white, black-suited dudes at all – but a gang of ear-plugged hipster martial artists? Or a trio of middle-aged women with snaky hair and long fingernails? Or six eerily silent people dressed up as stormtroopers? What motivates them and just how far will they go?
The School Acquaintance
Maybe he’s a geek too, someone who swallows a LOT and blushes whenever the heroine looks at him. Someone her grandpa knows but she’s never really looked at before. Maybe he’s the furthest, gawkiest, most awkward thing from an action-hero anyone could imagine.
Or maybe he’s not a he. Maybe it’s a girl. What about a perky cheerleader of North Indian descent who the heroine has a secret crush on?
But hang on… isn’t it a bit coincidental for the heroine to bump into this person in the first place? Let’s ask WHY they were hanging around just waiting for her to come charging out of that shop. What did they want? What were they planning to do with their day before the heroine’s adventure swallowed them? Maybe the person the heroine bumps into isn’t a potential love interest after all. Maybe they’re after the object too. Could it be that the freaky dudes who broke into the shop are trying to protect the object? Maybe they’re even trying to protect the heroine – from this very school friend she’s initially trusted to help her.
And the heroine?
In the clichéd version of the story, the heroine is a bit of a nonentity. She’s mostly there to be rescued. I’m going to take a wild guess that she’s insecure about her appearance, hates Maths but likes English, and is just longing for a boy to come along and make her feel whole.
No way, baby. She’s the viewpoint character. She should be getting more love from you, the writer, than anyone else! And the person she is ought to have a huge impact on the story, because the more unique and interesting she is, the more unique and interesting the story will be. What does she want? Where does she want to be in five years? What was her life like before this adventure began, and what will it be like afterwards?
What if she’s a wannabe catwalk model working in grandpa’s store to save up the airfare so that she can get to the auditions for Next Top Model? She’s not into boys, is quite confident that she’s drop-dead gorgeous, and her extensive knowledge of couture fashion is what pinpoints the identity of the person who is really after her.
Or maybe she’s a fiercely independent autistic musical prodigy who can save that extra special Luke Skywalker figurine from the forces of chaos and darkness all by herself, thanks very much – and will then sell it on eBay to fund her college career.
Real Talk: The idea of a desperate chase motivated by a mysterious object (often referred to as a McGuffin) isn’t that original. Truly original ideas are a rarity, in fact. Most of the time an idea that you believe is totally new will turn out to have been a classic years ago and only unfamiliar to you because it fell out of fashion for whatever reason. The truth is that you can only make your story feel fresh and new and surprising and original with your choices about how to tell it. Because guess what? Harry Potter isn’t a very original idea either. What made the books into the huge success they are was the way the writer framed and unfolded the tale, the way she developed those characters. No one but J K Rowling could have created Harry Potter’s world the way she did.
When I first listed the details of that antique shop/mysterious object story idea it seemed as if there was just one logical, natural way that things could play out. But that is never the case.
The trick is to stop and take a step back – step out of the shadow of all those hackneyed plots, characters and settings – and give yourself and your idea room to grow. Then you will produce the story that *only* you can write.
Clichés: whether at prose or structural level, hunt them down and kill them all.
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YA novelist Zoë Marriott lives on the bleak and windy East coast of Britain, in a house crowded with books, cats, and an eccentric sprocker named Finn (also known as the Devil Hound). Her folklore and fairytale inspired fantasy novels are critically acclaimed and have been nominated for many awards, even winning a few, including a USBBY Outstanding International Book listing for The Swan Kingdom and a Junior Library Guild Selection and the prestigious Sasakawa Prize for Shadows on the Moon.
The final book of her Japanese-influenced urban fantasy Name of the Blade trilogy, Frail Human Heart, has just been released in a tide of of Kitsune, Kami and katanas. Zoë is proud to be represented by Nancy Miles of the Miles Stott Children’s Literacy Agency.