Friday, 25 March 2011


Happy Friday, dear readers! The end of the week has rolled around again and here I am submerged up to my chin in FrostFire, so close to writing The End that I can literally smell it (hmmmm. Grilled cheese). Before I type anything else, I'd like to encourage everyone to head over to the Undercover Reads blog and become a follower or bookmark it. And this is not just because Shadows on the Moon will be on this blog in July and will be getting an Undercover book trailer and promotions of it's own. It's because this blog is really fascinating and an excellent resource for young writers (it's run by the editors of Walker Books!).

So just a quickie workship today, inspired by the lovely Vivienne DaCosta (of Serendipity) and designed to help you do something that all writers want to do: Kill those cliches stone dead (and yes, that's a cliche).

I'm not talking about cliched plots or characters here, because those are a bit of a deeper problem. This workshop is about is cliches at prose level. The first thing to realise about cliches is that they became cliches - over-used, meaningless phrases which a reader's eye skates over - because they WORKED. The first time that someone wrote these phrases: 

It was a white knuckle ride

My heart sank into my stomach/my heart was in my mouth

He had an iron fist in a velvet glove

She was as white as a ghost 

They were dead tired

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

I had a snowball in Hell's chance/when Hell freezes over

They were SO good, so clear, so apposite, that everyone who read them said: WOW. And promptly stole them for their own writing, or to use in every day conversation. And after ten years, twenty years, fifty years of being used over and over again, these phrases have become basically meaningless.

See - that's the problem with a cliche. It's not just that it isn't original. It's that when a reader sees those 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. It acts as a placeholder for what the writer wants us to know without actually telling us anything interesting or unique about this character or the situation. In most cases, the writer might as well just have written: Joe was scared, or Beth had no chance. Because the cliche is every
bit as flat and obvious.

No matter how beautifully rounded your characters, how stonking your plot or how unique your setting, if you're expressing these things using cliches your reader is likely to be stifling yawns. Language needs to be something that we use to get to a reader's heart, to make him or her gasp with an 'eye-ball kick' where an image or emotion shoots directly into their mind. Cliches are like a foggy mist that obscures everything bright and brilliant about your work. Cliches are when language becomes a barrier to what you really want to say.

When you're drafting, quite often the ideas are coming so fast that you shove a cliche in there just so you can keep going - and that's fine. I have friends who actually put notes in the margins with 'Make this better' or 'Wrong Word' so that they can pick these up in revision. Revision, you see, is the key to eliminating tired, bland phrases from your work.

When you come across a cliched phrase in your work you need to stop and think about WHAT YOU REALLY WANTED TO SAY. This might sound blindingly obvious, but it's not. So Ranjit 'gasped with shock' did he? 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 a cliche too, but at least it's a better cliche, one that tells us how Ranjit's shock affected him physically. Strip it back a bit more. What does being punched in the somach really feel like? Are you talking about this character literally staggering back, or maybe you just mean that his stomach cramps up and makes him hunch over? That's a reaction we can all sympathise with.

Having gotten this far, let's strip it back a bit 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 affect on how he feels.

Maybe Ranjit is shocked because he's heard that his friend is dead. In the instant when this terrible news hits him, Ranjit is so stunned that he feels like he's gone deaf for a moment. That's his brain trying to block out news that he doesn't want to know, that he can't cope with. That's good. That's not nearly as much of a cliche.

So now we know that Ranjit gets a terrible pain in his stomach, that he feels as if his ears had stopped working. He's devastated by what he's learned. That's a powerful moment.

We've gone from:

Ranjit gasped with shock, staring at Sandeep as if he couldn't believe his eyes. (Reader reaction - BOOORING)


Ranjit felt as if his ears had stopped working. A terrible pain cramped through his midsection - he doubled over, struggling for air. It took a moment for him to hear the rest of what Sandeep was saying. He didn't want to hear. (Reader reaction - Poor guy)

By stripping back the meaningless cliche and really thinking about the character, about how he feels, what he's going through, you've shown us a moment of real emotion, one that will move us. One that, for that split-second, makes us think maybe we know just how he feels.

And 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 writer's Holy Grail (cliche alert!) - to convey character in every line. 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 turns on the bearer of bad news would be different. Someone who walked away before the bearer of bad news could even finish would be different.

The cliche tells us nothing. The good description tells us everything.

Maybe you can't do this for every single cliche in your book. You may have noticed that while the cliche took up one line there, the good piece of description took three lines. There are times when, in order to pick up the pace, you will need to skip the detailed analysis and 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 cliches. Then kill those suckers so that your characters can live.


serendipity_viv said...

Oh wow. Your are soo good at this. Can't I just send you all my cliches instead and you can put them through your cliche busting machine. No!

This is a brilliant explanation and thank you for helpin me overcome my cliche issues.

Zoë Marriott said...

Long practise and many, many cliches written, my ducky! And NO YOU CAN'T. You'll never learn if you don't do it for yourself (as my primary school teacher would have said).

You are very welcome!

Aimen said...

That was a fantastic post, Zoe =D
I've only ever read posts that detail cliched plots and characters and sure, those do have the potential to virtually kill a story, but I love how you focused on prose.
It's something that I probably would not have bothered with and the task of fixing it doesn't seem all that daunting either
Yes, I'm a wuss, sometimes.

Thanks for the wonderful post, Zoe =D
Have a great weekend!

bfree15 said...

Great post Zoe, I don't think I ever really thought about it before even though we all do it.

Megz said...

Thanks for the great post! I try and avoid cliches... though sometimes that's hard, you know?

Oh, by the way, have you read Northern Lights by Philip Pullman? Seriously. IT IS FABULOUS. And the writing is... wow. I really, REALLY wish that I had written that. But I have nowhere near as much talent.

Zoë Marriott said...

Aimen: Telling a story really *well* can make all the difference, sometimes. And, as you've seen, it's not really hard to kill the cliches. It's just a matter of realising they're THERE and making the effort to get rid of them.

bfree: It's surprising how even people who love to read and write can miss cliches. I certainly did. It wasn't until I read this marvelous book by Sherry Garland about writing for young adults that I really appreciated what a difference thinking deeply about the language you chose can make.

Megha: I certainly have! I love it! But don't say that about yourself - because you know it's not really about talent, right? There are lots of people will talent. But there AREN'T lots of people who are willing to work at their craft and be persistent in improving, and that is what makes all the difference.

Isabel said...

OMG, this was such a good post. Thank you for explaining exactly what clishes ARE so eloquently. And all of this really helped -- a lot!

Not to sound arrogant, but I think that avoiding cliches is something that I'm pretty good at. I am a very detailed writer and sometimes I have so much to say in describing a certain feeling or action that I have to pick a few phrases or words. Sometimes I wonder if I'm going into too much detail. But most of the time it just adds to my work and makes it a lot better. But yes, when you are writing a really fast-paced scene or getting a message across isn't that important, sometimes cliches are okay. But usually, it's good to avoid them.

Like they always say, show, don't tell! ;)

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Thanks! I think all writers have strengths and weaknesses, and for some writers the prose side comes really easily and is just fun. You're one of those writers. Be happy!

Isabel said...

Hehe, thank you, I am.

Megz said...

Zoe: OMG you HAVE? YAY! AND YOU LIKE THE BOOK!!! Well, that's good.

Anonymous said...

Great post. It's extremely helpful. I use cliches all the time without even realising it until I have to present my work and I hear it out loud.


Isabel said...

Zoe: I just did a bunch of Wordle's for my book so far and there is one that I especially love, with one character's name far away from everybody else's, just like that one that you did for FrostFire a while ago. Jeez, these things really ARE phyco...

Zoë Marriott said...

Katie-Lynn: I actually find it's quite useful to read things out once I've finished them, as part of revising. You stumble over problem parts which your eye just skimmed. It's a good test.

Isabel: Um...I think you mean psychic? Rather than psycho, or 'phyco'...

Isabel said...

Yes I meant psychic hehe.

Isabel said...

Yes, reading things out loud definitely helps. If you over-use a word or a phrase doesn't sound quite right...

Megz said...

Like Isabel, I just naturally stay away from cliches. I try and describe a lot too, but sometimes I don't... I wish I did. Isabel's great at descriptive writing, however.

Zoë Marriott said...

Well, like I said, everyone has their own strengths and skills - you just have to concentrate on those and try to overcome the hard parts! No one's good at everything.

Alex Mullarky said...

That makes a lot of sense :) you're very good at explaining things about writing.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Alex. I might have to do another post about this - I feel like I've not gone into it in enough detail. Hmmm...

Elise Stephens said...

That's a great phrase to remember whenever I'm tempted by a cliche: Cliches are like a foggy mist that obscures everything bright and brilliant about your work.

Thanks, Zoe. I also appreciate that you point out that these wonderful character descriptions don't often spill out when you're first writing (though cliches do), but the cliches can be clarified and have good stuff substituted for them when you go back to rewrite. That's great advice.

Zoë Marriott said...

I'm glad it was useful, Elise! I think I might revisit this topic another day - I have a feeling there's more helpful stuff to be said.

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