Monday, April 16, 2012

Reading Pet Peeves: Cliché

I've been posting a lot of reviews of debut novels, and writing that they're obviously a first novel. I thought I'd talk about what marks a book as someone's first, and therefore what to avoid. I'm going to start with a subject I've brushed over in the past, but that I haven't devoted an entire post to.

A cliché is a phrase that's overused so much that it's meaningless. It doesn't happen just in writing, but I don't know a thing about art or dance, and I think conversational clichés can serve a purpose, like giving people something familiar to connect over.

Nothing marks a new writer more distinctly than if he compares rain to tears (or vice versa), she drives her romantic pairing apart with a wacky misunderstanding, or if the text declares something to be better than sliced bread. If you're like me, you've read these plots and comparisons, and you groan and roll your eyes, and hope the next image or plot twist is better. Cliché images make the world flat and boring, while cliché plots make it predictable. You want your story to be none of these.

One's imagery can't always be sparkling and original, and, as a pantster, I've written more than my share of clichés into first drafts. That's why editing and rewriting are so important. Clichés are so embedded into our heads that they're usually the first association that pops to mind.

Incidentally, that's also how you identify them. If, as you're editing, you find your images matching up with your expectations exactly, it's time to shake things up. Try to look at what you're describing in a new way, through the mood of your perspective character. On any given day, I compare my husband to a squirrel, a robot, a tornado, a boulder, a bunny, my dad, a baby hedgehog, an otter, and a 50s housewife, depending on my mood.

As for plot, there is a difference between a well-foreshadowed plot and a cliché one, though it can be a fine line. One technique I use is to try thinking of the last five things I read or watched that had a similar plot. If any or the majority followed the exact same path as my own story, I'm falling back on a cliché, and I need to stop and rethink how I'm going about my plotting.

Often, though, the best method I have for avoiding clichés is the make note of things I'm seeing in ways I haven't seen described before. I used to write them down, but then I'd lose the notebooks or journals. Nowadays, I mostly tweet them. Now that I'm used to looking beyond the cliché, though, and always trying to come up with new ways to describe things, it comes easier.

I know I've succeeded when, in a critique with my writing group, someone remarks that something stood out, in a good way, and other people nod. Those moments are almost worth the nerve-wracking experience of being critiqued in the first place.


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