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 - Um...wow. 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.