Have you ever been blocked in your writing, when suddenly you’re struck by lightning, and in the nick of time save your story because of one idea that’s a game changer? Writing is not always sweetness and light, and sometimes you have to spend many a dark and stormy night burning the midnight oil.
One thing you can do to lift your writing from the bowels of hell and make it sing, is to avoid writing in clichés.
Here’s the dictionary definition of cliché: a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought. Here’s an example: A story starting with the heroine rolling over in bed, seeing her alarm clock and shouting, “Oh no!”
I’ve found myself typing this kind of scene many times. It’s familiar. It’s fun. It’s safe. I often don’t even notice that I’ve used a cliché until a friend or editor writes, “No” in the margin. And I’m like, “Oh yeah, right… oops.”
The bummer is I’m attracted to clichés like a moth to flame. (damn it!)
Clichés take your writing down a notch. I love this quote from Chekhov, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining: show me the glint of light on broken glass.” And this one from Martin Amis, “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”
Here are some strategies to avoid writing clichés…
Lift up the ordinary. Find interesting, unique ways to describe ordinary people, places or situations. Use adjectives and dialogue that are idiosyncratic to the world or people you are writing about.
Avoid stereotypes. Try to stay away from stock characters and inherently melodramatic scenarios.
Beware of overused phrases or actions. For example…
“a chip off the old block,” “blind ambition,” “crack of dawn”
Someone talking to a gravestone (ok, I’ve seen this one work a few times, but you have to be a master)
Sex montages with burning candles and clothes strewn on the bedroom floor
A character saying, “This isn’t over.”
A woman taking off her glasses and suddenly looking beautiful
Dream sequences that reveal the ‘theme’
If you’re stuck for a descriptor and all that pops into your head is a cliché, write it down, but flag it for later. You’re going to go back and find a way to more originally describe that object or thought or feeling.
After you finish a draft of your project, go through it once, specifically hunting for clichés. Remove them.
If you’re using well-trod themes like “true love conquers all,” or “revenge is a dish best served cold,” set your tale in an environment we’ve never seen before, or write it from the point of view of a VERY unique individual. The more specific your characters and world, the more these themes will feel new.
When writing a genre piece, beware of the conventional scenes in this genre that can trap you. For example, in Noir stories there’s often the cliche scene where the hero gets “sapped” on the head. How can you disable your hero in a new way? In romantic comedies, we have the sad montage of our heroine running in the rain and overeating in her apartment. Instead of running in the rain, what could she be doing in reaction to this loss that’s unique to her?
Be specific. The difference between calling someone “bad,” and this description from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin is huge… “The madness still lurked in his face, but it was a quieter madness now, not the rabid-animal savagery of before. Something else — I could not bring myself to call it humanity — stirred underneath the gleam.”
Take Action! Avoid using cliches in your book or screenplay. How can you make your descriptions and dialogue more specific? Your characters more singular? How can you lean into the conventions of your genre but make them feel fresh and new?
Watch how the writers of THIS IS THE END take this conventional scene from apocalypse movies (the characters assess their provisions,) to a new original level.
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