Thursday, March 15, 2012

It's been done before, or, the snapped twig

As writers, we're taught to shy away from cliches. We start out with confidence, thinking, "That's easy advice to take! I'm never going to say, 'red as a beet' or 'sweet as sugar.'" But then we learn, to our horror, how very many stock phrases are out there--"my stomach churned," "out of the corner of my eye," etc. We find more and more of them in our work, and we dutifully root them out.

Then we discover that people who read a lot see patterns that the average reader may not even notice. Oh no; it's another crop of cliches! Now we have more lists to remember, as we learn that red-haired characters, and characters describing themselves in a mirror, and best friends becoming attracted to one another, are situations to avoid.

The problem is, there are so many of these phrases and situations that have been done before. I reached a point where I began to feel overwhelmed by the lists, paralyzed by self-censorship. It was then that I thought: Enough. I have to go back to my gut check, and write what feels right, and not worry so much about whether it's a cliche to someone else.

Because you know one thing that is on those lists of no-nos? Starting a book with a character waking up. And yet that's how The Hunger Games starts, and I think we all know how well that has turned out for Suzanne Collins.

I'm not going to say that we don't have to worry about originality and freshness. We do. But I want to look at the reason behind avoiding cliches. A phrase or situation becomes tired when it's done out of laziness. When we use it not because it feels true to the story we're telling, but because we've seen it happen that way before, so we grab the stock phrase or character or situation off the shelf and plug it right in, without asking,"Is this really how it feels, how it happens? Is this true?"

For example: One situation we've probably all seen is a character who's sneaking through the woods and is betrayed by stepping on, and snapping, a twig. That's a pet peeve of mine, in fact. But I'm not going to say it can't work in a story. To extend my "for-instance" by referring to The Hunger Games again: Collins establishes that Katniss and Gale, the hunters, are very quiet in the forest. But Peeta, who's been raised in town, has never learned to move with that sort of stealth. So if we had a situation involving those characters where Peeta snapped a twig, I would totally buy it. Not so much Katniss or Gale.

A character can snap that twig if he really would be in the woods and really wouldn't know how not to snap a twig, given who he is and what's happening. Maybe it's a little harder to sell a reader on a snapped twig, since that one has been done so many times before. But anything can work if it's right for the story.

9 comments:

  1. You have no idea how hard it is to write a "survival in the woods" story and deal with the snapped twig issue. . .

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    1. On all the hikes I do, it's usually the rustle of leaves that alert me to the presence of animals, more than any other cue--and those animals are usually birds and squirrels. Usually the sound of breaking wood is a sign of a much bigger animal, like a bear.

      For whatever that's worth!

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  2. Oh, so well said! I use "cliches" all the time, but I'm very careful about how I use them, and they must work for the story. Sometimes my judgement isn't quite spot on and my editor scratches a few out, but for the most part, I like to think I'm pretty aware of them, and unafraid to use them!

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    1. That's where other people's eyes can really help--because the cliches can become so automatic, they're easy to skim over. I usually have at least a few that need to go!

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  3. Good point about cliched situations -- they can be a lot harder to root out than hoary old phrases. I've just read a book in which the main character is a family man turned vigilante since the massacre of his family. Cliche alert right there! And then of course he spent the whole book treating the female characters as delicate flowers to be protected and rushed out of dangerous situations before the big brave men dealt with it. It wasn't a terrible book by any means but I did roll my eyes a few times. It's just been done so many times before.

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    1. One thing writers are encouraged to do is not run with the first idea, but play with alternatives, especially if retelling a familiar story. As just a small example of a twist: One thing I liked about the movie TITANIC was that the male character was the one who ended up chained to a pipe, and the female character had to rescue him.

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  5. It's the laziness of resorting to the cliche that bothers me the most. I know that when I find myself using one, it's either because I'm lazy or I'm trying to capture the moment just enough to keep moving the story forward. When this happens, I put a marker of some sort to remind me to re-work it or ensure the right foundation is laid when I'm editing/revising.

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    1. It can be so automatic, so easy, to use cliches. I've spent hours thinking up alternatives to, "shivering with fright," "a lump in my throat," etc. And when it comes to plot, it's hard to find a truly new situation. That's when a fresh POV may become critical.

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