Next up in the Common Advice series…
Clichés are familiar and over used turns of phrase. Not just spelling out the obvious for the sake of it – sometimes returning to the basic definition of a word can help you look at it anew.
Because how can you ever truly remove the familiar from your work? There are writers who strain to do this, the literary Egos, and the more successful they are the more unreadable they render their work. Cliché is language. Language is pattern, recognisable forms drummed in through repetition until they become instinctive.
So cliché it up and screw the critics!.. em..
I think every writer will go through phases where they become overly concerned about their voice; the self conscious and deliberate attempts to be someone other than yourself. Your favourite books are Mills and Boon, but you are trying to be Thomas Hardy – understandably, the derided versus the distinguished is hardly a tough choice.
Some go searching for any combination of words, no matter how strange, as long as they’ve never seen it before. But most will end up copying, attempting what they have seen the successful do, sure that treading in their footprints will lead to the same end.
I honestly believe that most who achieve success do so by embracing their own voice, however ordinary that might be. But it can a steep and confusing learning curve figuring out what elements are worth keeping, which work for you and which you can adapt to suit. So how do you move from the self conscious mimic to the natural storyteller?
.. Know the effect. Which means in essence. Read. Read other books and read your own, read for the simple pleasure of reading, and try everything once. Its the only way to get an idea of how your words will impact on the reader. And you are looking for readers right? Readers who like what you have to offer, who read the kind of books you like. The writer who waits around to be told whats works, what doesn’t, what to write, what not to write, is the writer who should quit now.
If you don’t know that black as pitch is a cliché and you’re not twelve, that’s kinda like going before the x-factor panel and singing I Will Survive. But if you know your clichés, then you could do this..
As long as you know the effect, clichés are your friend. One more tool in the writers kit. Sometimes it might seem wearingly like we stand at the end of literature. All roads written, all stories told. The greats have all gone before us and all we can ever really offer is a poor imitation. I prefer to think of it as standing on the shoulders of giants. So much has been tested and tried that we can pick and chose, twist and distort to our own advantage. All we have to do is read, they had to write the buggers.
Cliché is familiarity. Its cosy and comfortable and readers – people – like that. We can use it. We can use it to set our audience up for a sting they will never see coming, a la Psycho – and may I say this particular twist is still hugely under used. Equally we can use it to ease the path for some more difficult or unpalatable truths we want them to hear, a sugar coating for the literary pill.
It can also of course, bore and grate. Some readers are more aware of them than others and usually that makes them much less forgiving. Your first and most critical reader should always be you. So know why you’re using them and make sure they work. If in the middle of a tense action scene you want to convey your mc’s moment of panic, you could try to come up with a new and inventive way to suggest this or you could go with, his blood ran to ice, knowing your reader will know that feeling as well as they know the phrase and thus will stay in scene as the killer closes in.. exactly where you want them to be.
But cliché is not merely the language you use. It’s scenes, characters, structure, theme, the very foundations of your book. And again, the trick is to be aware of them and understand how they work so that we can use them to our advantage, not simply eschew them in blind pursuit of originality – a pursuit that can become an end in itself, but should never be the purpose of literature. Enlighten, inspire, delight, tease, but don’t offer something which stands purely as something ‘different’. A failure of story, a failure of humour, a failure of catharsis, but hey its not like anything else out there..
Knowing the underlying form can allow you to avoid the overly clichéd and still use it to your advantage. The young twins in Stephen King’s, The Shining, have become a tired staple in horror, but the form that underpins it, innocence tainted, remains powerful.
I am concerned with clichés. This one resonates with me, but I am concerned that we are focusing our attention almost exclusively on the superficial layers. The result is that too often when I pick up a book I have that feeling, no matter how fresh the words, that I have read this before. Story itself is a language and one we need to be aware of and start addressing.
What bores the critic today will bore the reader tomorrow
– Ezra Pound –
One layer is connected to the other. Obvious clichés in language can suggest you have a similarly unimaginative story in your hand. Its a cheap and easy trick to filter the worst of them out while never addressing the fundamental flaws that lie beneath and yet both come from the same place – lazy thinking. Or fearful. The most unusual work I’ve ever written came about when I stopped censoring myself. Often once the basic plot lines are laid down a writer will turn to their phrasing under the impression their story is done. Its not. You should never stop questioning and delving into your narrative. Every edit is a chance to learn more about who your characters are and how your world works. Every written edit should be accompanied by ten mental edits, where you are simply asking questions, trying out alternative dialogues, reordering, replotting.
You can never rehearse enough when facing the literary X-factor panel.