Saturday, July 21, 2012

Kicking the evil cliches out of the story!

A zillion billion years ago, during my undergrad days, I had a writing professor (Dr. Trowbridge) who often wrote a large T, which meant “trite,” across sentences or phrases in our MSS that were hackneyed or clichéd. Generally I’d get a number of T’s on every page.

I remembered those big T’s when I ran across this advice from Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and Paint it Black:

"When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever heard or read before is a cliché. They can be combinations of words: Cold sweat. Fire-engine red, or phrases: on the same page, level playing field, or metaphors: big as a house. So quiet you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes things themselves are cliches: fuzzy dice, pink flamingo lawn ornaments, long blonde hair. Just keep asking yourself, “Honestly, have I ever seen this before?” Even if Shakespeare wrote it, or Virginia Woolf, it’s a cliché. You’re a writer and you have to invent it from scratch, all by yourself. That’s why writing is a lot of work, and demands unflinching honesty."

After reading her advice, I looked at one chapter in my novel – and holy cow, who wrote all this silly trite nonsense!

"He put his feet on his desk."  Trite.

"He leaned forward intently." Trite. 

"Wyatt breezed into the bandroom." Trite. 

An evil elf must have gotten a hold of my computer, because a writing genius like me couldn’t have written this dreck!

But before I could work myself into a freak-out frenzy in which I stuffed all of my novels into the trash can, I made myself a simple assignment: Forge an awesome writer sword. Then use it to chop out the trite phrases, and replace those phrases with something I've never heard before.

Sir Terry Pratchett forged *his* sword out of meteorites, with the help of little blue men, because he is that awesome.

Well, not on the level of rewriting each sentence to say, “Pharby ek gooley mekhenowitzh." But make yourself reach a little. Pull in some words you wouldn’t ordinarily use (sometimes I like to scry through a dictionary just to see what surprises come up). Also, dig more deeply into your character’s pov and see things 1) that interest her in 2) ways that only she would see them.

Of course, coming up with something that’s not trite or clichéd takes some thought, and generally I am against sustained thought because right now my brain is about the size of a walnut. But this exercise yields some crazy interesting pages, and when you’re done, you’re like, “Hey! I made this!” and it feels pretty awesome.

P.S. Hi, I'm a new blogger! I'm Melinda, and I graduated from Hamline last Sunday whilst being very pregnant, and it was great. In baby news: Now that I’m back in Missouri, I have been actively trying to evict baby, but he just ignores me and continues to work on his kickboxing skills in the womb. ETA is still the first week of August. Anyway, I am happy to be here!


  1. Welcome to the Storyteller's Inkpot, Melinda!

  2. Melinda, as a result of your smart blog post, I turn my attention to the Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. He's the writer who SHOWED me what you're telling us. Through him I saw that metaphor should never be cliche. I'll open to any page and see what I can find. Hang on. Here are some: "On the step, he perused the mud that had dried as a rusty sheet on his uniform, then looked Liesel hopelessly in the face." Here's another: "Either the radio was half broken, or it was swallowed immediately by the crying sound of sirens." And here--I love this type of description: "Liesel's relief was pure and sad inside her." Arranging our words in original and thoughtful, unique ways make our characters exciting and real. I am using this latest draft of my novel-in-progress almost exclusively for cliche removal. (Okay, also some trimming of the lard-ass prose.) And baby, it's HARD.

    1. Wowsers, that's an excellent point with Book Thief. "Frau Diller smiled. Her teeth elbowed each other for room in her mouth." And you can pick up most any good book and find that quality of language in them because that's the kind of work that a really good book requires!

      Your mention of The Book Thief made me think of how Anne Tyler handled the characters in Back When We Were Grownups. She said, "I'll manufacture what's initially a very trumped-up, artificial plot. I'll write maybe one long paragraph describing the events, then a page or two breaking the events into chapters, and then *reams* of pages delving into my characters."

      The very thought of *reams* of pages makes me want to pass out. But when you look at Anne's characters, and how very clear and well-drawn and surprising they are, well that's just good work.

      (I got the book out for examples and then ended up reading about half of it instead. Ooops!)

  3. Great post, Melinda. A timely reminder for me, too. It can be so easy to let those trite bits and cliches slide on by!

  4. Congrats on graduating, Melinda, and glad to see you posting here!

    How awesome that you raise you sword against cliche!

    In _Story_, Robert McKee declares war on cliche--and I love it!

    He believes that cliche arises from one thing--the writer not knowing the story world. If the writer has imagined the story world (which includes the characters, since they're part of the setting) lushly and thoroughly, then the writer will render everything with such specificity that it won't be full of cliches, and the characters will react to the lush specificity in ways that are not cliched. "An honest story," he writes, "is at home in one, and only one, place and time" (p 71 in my copy).

    1. Pete Hautman, a few residencies ago: "Clear writing is the result of clear thinking. If you can't write it, you need to spend more time imagining and understanding."

      Know your world.

  5. Welcome aboard, Melinda! I often tell my own students that cliche'=lazy writing and/or the product of a tired writer. Oh, and Andrew, I <3 McKee's work. LOVE.

    Happy blogging! And, congrats on your recent graduation your new edition!


    1. If cliches were the product of a tired writer, I'd be the cliche queen. :P

  6. Thanks, Melinda. Glad to see you here.

    Melissa--I also wonder if it works in reverse, too. I mean, I wonder if cliches in the prose have anything to do with why a writer might upon occasion get tired of the piece, which of course would in turn produce more tired prose. What a cycle. Anyway, time to get the sword out, I guess. Can only hope the soporific stench of cliche doesn't render me weak and lazy.

  7. I'll have to let that theory swirl around for a bit. Would you mind handing your sword over when you're through...I snapped my blade on Chapter Four...

    And I know that you know my name, silly. :) I've given up on that battle. "You can call me Ish-Mell."

  8. p.s. Will also add that cliche' also just happens when we draft, when we let ourselves go, when we just write. So, the sword comes in handy as we revise. :)