Friday, 27 January 2012


Hello, Dear Readers! Friday has arrived, and so it is time for another glumptious helping of that well known delicacy RetroFriday, where I present to you a post which you might have missed the first time around, or may benefit from reading again. Today's post?

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 used correctly allows us to get to a reader's heart. It's a tool that we can utilise to shoot images directly into their brain. Using a cliche to do this is like trying to hammer a nail into the wall with a marshmallow. Cliches obscure everything bright and brilliant about your work.

Cliches turn words into a barrier between the reader and what you want them to feel.

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 Ranjit's shock affected him physically, which tells us something about who he is.

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 doesn't want to hear it. He wants to block it out. In fact, for a second, it feels as if he's deaf, because his brain is trying to avoid having to cope with this awful news. Realising this about Ranjit (that he's the kind of person who reacts to shock by wanting to block it out, that it causes physical discomfort for him) is very good, because not only does it give the reader a deeper insight into him, it means that we - as the writer! - are going to know him well enough in future to hopefully avoid even more cliches.

So: Ranjit gets bad news. He feels a terrible pain in his stomach and has the sensation that his ears have stopped working. He's almost as devastated physically by what he's learned as he is emotionally. 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 reaction that truly feels real, one that has the possibility of moving us. One that, for that split-second, makes us think maybe we know just how he feels.

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 a very different Ranjit:

Sandeep's face blurred in Ranjit's eyes and pain exploded in his right hand. He realised that he had driven his fist into the wall of the barn. Sandeep was talking to him quietly, trying to coax him away, trying to look at his stinging, bleeding knuckles.

Someone who passes out would be a different Ranjit.

Someone who turns on the bearer of bad news would be a different Ranjit.

Someone who walked away before the bearer of bad news could even finish would be different:

Ranjit heard Sandeep's words distantly, but he didn't try to process them. He already knew. Sandeep's face had told him everything the second that his friend rounded the side of the barn. Ranjit jerked away from Sandeep and walked off, the noises of the farm rushing together in his head and turning to choked silence.

So many possibilities! So many ways to teach us about Ranjit and so many ways to make the reader feel. And we're even learning about Sandeep in the process! (Does anyone else totally ship Ranjit and Sandeep now? No? Just me then...)

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

You probably 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. Not every shock that the character gets is going to be a your-friend-is-dead-emo-angst type of shock. Ranjit doesn't need to double over with pain when he finds out there's no coffee for his breakfast (although I might).

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.


Isabel said...

I love this post!! Ever since I read it it's helped me so much to improve my writing and pay attention to cliches. Thanks for re-posting.

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: I'm so glad - hearing that is the BEST incentive to keep posting :)

Jenni said...

I love these posts so much, there's definitely a lot I'm going to be taking away from this. Thank you.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: Thanks! I remember when I first realised that I could play around with language like this, without being trapped by all the regular phrases I'd seen other writers used all my life. It fireworks going off inside me. I've always wanted to share that feeling with other people.

Unknown said...

That's a really helpful post, thank you! Cliches often sneak into my writing and I cringe when I read back over them, this has given me a better idea of how to sort them out :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Amy: I think a big problem is we're so used to seeing them we don't even notice them. It doesn't occur to us that there's a different way to say something. So cinging is a GOOD sign!

Lora Palmer said...

Loved this post! And it came at a really helpful time, too, because I can apply this as I go through my edits.

Zoë Marriott said...

Lora: Oh, good - I'm glad it's useful.

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