Wednesday, 3 August 2011


Hello, Dear Readers - congrats on making it to Wednesday! As most of you know, I don't schedule posts in advance, so in the wake of the huuuge response to Monday's post (did NOT see that coming) I found myself grappling with performance anxiety and, as a result, a bit stumped as to what I should post about today. Like many scared authors who are stumped for ideas, I turned to Twitter. Thank you to everyone who lobbed an idea at the black hole that was my brain! There were some great suggestions but the one that I decided to go with was that I revisit my previous Cliche Killer post. Here goes.

As we know from my earlier ramblings, a cliche can be a phrase or a description which was originally so striking and so useful that everyone wanted to use it. And everyone did, and it passed into common parlance and from there into this weird, Zombie-Word-Graveyard where, while the phrase is tossed around like glitter at a beauty pageant, the words within it have become meaningless.

I've already gone into detail about the 'stripping back' process of turning a cliched phrase into something with real meaning. But what we didn't discuss was the tricky issue of the cliches hidden deeper in your work. Because cliches aren't just bland, meaningless phrases that disconnect the reader from the brilliance and emotional intensity of your ideas. Cliches 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 which calls to her. 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 boy 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.

Awesome! What a great set-up! Conflict and mystery and budding romance! Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

Oh-ho-ho, how wrong you are, Dear Readers.

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 artefact 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 boy the heroine bumps into is obviously a handsome action-hero in waiting. He'll protect her, and of course they'll fall in love!

On it goes. There's nothing there which isn't an echo of something everyone has seen before. Our interesting idea just withered and DIED under the suffocating weight of cliches.

All our lives we're bombarded with certain images, certain ideas, certain characters and certain situations. TV programmes, adverts, books, the stories in magazines, films, music just can't escape The One True Vision of the world that mainstream media is flooding your brain with 27-7 (this links into various other posts I've made BTW - extra points if you can tell me which ones!). If you don't clear a little space in your head where your story can breathe and find its own One True Vision, you'll just end up recycling those again and again too.

Look again at the images we automatically slotted into the gaps of that idea and you can see that they were all made under the influence of the One True Vision. They didn't actually come from you - from the unique depths of your soul. They came from OUTSIDE. And because of that, anyone could have come up with that take on the story. If you want to avoid cliches, instead of taking ideas from outside, go inside. Fill in those gaps with something that really interests YOU. Something that makes you laugh or tear up or go wide-eyed or just grin. Something that expresses the unique person you are.

Start with character.


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 cliche.

What if he's a fit, frisky ladies man who wears loud Hawaiian shirts and likes to do a little soft-shoe shuffle? What if his shop sells collectable movie posters, 50's and 60's kitsch and novelty items?

Another take: what if grandad is a giant uber-geek. A silver surfer and gamer, with millions of online friends. What if his store sells replica weapons, StarWars and StarTrek memorabilia, movie props and vintage computer games?

Suddenly the whole set-up comes to life. What we have here is character - not cliche. And from that character, a unique and interesting setting grows. Already things are looking up.

The Object? 

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.

Mysterious Dudes

Again, start with character. Why are they 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 good-looking teenage Asian martial artists. Or a trio of middle-aged women with snaky hair and long fingernails. Or silent people dressed as stormtroopers. What motivates them and just how far will they go?

The Boy

Maybe he's a geek too, someone who swallows a LOT and blushes whenever she looks at him. Someone her grandpa knows but she's never really looked at before. Does he know something about all this? Perhaps the heroine grabs him and won't let go until he spills the beans, and in the process she finds that he's really cool. Or maybe he's not a he - maybe it's a girl. The 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? If we're going to go back to character here, 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. He or she strings the heroine along for a little bit, pretending to help, but eventually it turns out they're a bad guy who's after the object too. Maybe the freaky dudes who broke into the shop are trying to protect the object. Maybe they're trying to protect the HEROINE. All H*ll is going to break lose when THAT comes out.

Or maybe both sides are after something completely different.

And the heroine? 

In the cliched version of the story, the heroine is a bit of a nonentity. She's squashed out by all the guys. 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 an interesting person too! And the person she is ought to have a huge impact on the story.

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 - and her extensive knowledge of couture fashion is what pinpoints the identity of the person who is really after her.

Or a mathematical genius and borderline autistic girl who can see all the angles and save that extra special Luke Skywalker figurine from the forces of chaos and darkness all by herself, thanks very much!

Let's be honest here - the idea of a desperate chase motivated by a mysterious object isn't that original. But you can MAKE it original with your choices about how to tell the story. Because guess what? Harry Potter isn't a very original idea either. What made the books into the huge success they are is the choices the writer made: they way she framed and unfolded the tale, the ways 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 way that things could play out. We're all conditioned to go for what's obvious first time around. The trick is to stop and take a step back - take away the shadow of all those hackneyed, typical, over-used images, characters, settings and plots. Leave yourself and your idea room to grow, to reach for the sun. Then you will produce the story that *only* you can write. Which is the only story that most of us want to write, after all.

Plotting workshop on Friday, guys! See you then.


Lauren said...

After reading this I'm now hyper aware of all those cliched choices I don't even realise I'm making, because they just seem to spring eagerly into my mind and fit naturally into what I'm writing. Oops. I definitely need to do that 'take a step back' thing, and often. Thanks for such an inspriring and enlightening post.

Zoë Marriott said...

Lauren: Oh, those sneaky cliches! They really DO feel natural and 'right' as they slip seamlessly into your stories. It's so easy that you don't even realise there was any other way to take a story, or any other way to write a character. I'm sure there's still loads in what I write too! It's an ongoing process.

Jenni @ Juniper's Jungle said...

Wow, another brilliant post! I want to read that story about the Luke Skywalker figure!

Think I'll be adding this to my bookmarks so I can keep it in mind when I'm writing.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: Thanks! :) You can have the Luke Skywalker story if you like, I'm not doing anything with it.

jowearsoldcoats said...

Love this post Zoe!
It's so easy to flip into cliche mode (even though when I read scenes like you described I get a headache from all the eye-rolling) when I'm writing.

There's nothing better than reading a book that completely takes you by surprise.

I would totally read the story about the Hawaiian-shirted soft-shoe shuffler granddad.

Oh... and this geeky guy who blushes when I look at him?
Where can I get one of them?

Zoë Marriott said...

Jo: The thing is, while you can get away with cliched phrases in your work in the heat of drafting, and easily fix them in revision, cliched characters and situations take a LOT more work to fix later on. You can feel, as you're going on, that *something* isn't right...but because it all seems so natural and seamless for things to play out a certain way, you don't realise that what is wrong is EVERYTHING. It's soooo much easier to catch them at the beginning!

Isabel said...

Great post! I'm always worried about cliches in my work, so this was very helpful.

Here is the link to my review for Shadows on the Moon:

BTW, my dad's architectural firm is called Sasaki.

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Thanks - you know how much I like to be useful. That's a great coincidence about the name!

wandering-dreamer said...

I love this post so much, just because an author is using a rather basic/overused plot premise doesn't mean that they can't make it interesting and original!

Anonymous said...

Not only is this post helpful, it's also hilarious :D

Loving the nerdy grandpa!

Now, I'm going to go examine my characters for cliches.

Zoë Marriott said...

Dreamer: Exactly! Ideas are important, but what you DO with them is ten times more important.

Gabbi: Thanks. I love him too - wonder if I'll ever get to use him in something?

Unknown said...

Stumbled upon your blog the other day and I must say you are truly inspiring and this post (as well as others) left a mark. I've been thinking about this post all day.

I really hope your blogposts can help me in my writing that needs a huge push and a kick in the bum to be honest.

Thank you :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Lollo: Thank you for saying that, it really means a lot, and I'm so glad the post was useful. Good luck with your writing!

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