Avoiding Cliches Like the Plague

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a cliché is (a) a hackneyed phrase or opinion or (b) a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person. I used to have a dictionary of clichés, I think also published by Oxford. The precise purpose of such a reference source eluded me. Perhaps it was so people could check they were not using clichés in their writing or speech.

Because, of course, we must avoid using clichés. In this post I’m not so much concerned with the first definition above. We all recognise these things for what they are pretty quickly:

Not in a million years…

For all intents and purposes…

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks…

As heavy as lead…

Millions of these things are espoused daily and eliminating them isn’t too hard with a careful edit. But today I want to discuss the other definition, which is far more insidious in writing and film. The situational cliché. The story that goes along predictable lines and ends the same way lots of other stories have in the past.

There are lots of these too. I mentioned one years ago when I reviewed a film, Hansel and Gretel. There it was what I called the “too cool to look” hero walk. You know the one. The hero has just beaten the bad guy and lit the fuse for an explosion. As the bomb detonates in the background the hero is seen walking towards the camera, dead-pan expression on his face or maybe lighting a cigarette, not bothering to glance over his shoulder as the explosion blows the final shreds of the villain away. It’s meant to show that the hero is ultra-cool, so cool in fact he can ignore an event that would have everyone else ducking for cover or at least turning around to look at*. So cool he doesn’t need to run.

It’s been done a lot. It’s a cliché. It’s the sort of thing writers need to avoid.

I myself had a recent problem with a cliché ending to a series I’m writing at the moment. My cliché was “the hero sacrifices herself to save the world but isn’t really dead and comes back when everyone least expects it and manages to destroy the bad guy…” I wanted to avoid it and it took a while to do so.

The Star Trek film franchise did this a lot. In The Wrath of Khan Spock is killedHe’s back in the next movie, not really being dead at all of course…well, sort of but not really. Even the Enterprise has been destroyed a number of times but there is always a new one just being completed the crew can transfer to. Handy, that.

There are book series out there that have cliché endings. Lots of them. The Harry Potter series for instance. Harry gets killed and brought back to life because he’s not really dead…well, he is, but not really. In his book Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series, Jim Adam states that J. K. Rowling uses the cliché of the Christ-like sacrifice to save mankind (or in her case Wizard-kind). The hero needs to die, to sacrifice his or her own life, in order to save the lives of others.

That’s been done too.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Christ-like sacrifice, except that it’s been done. A lot.

And this was the problem I had. It took a while to solve it, required me to consult with my editor, and is going to necessitate a heavy re-write of the last part of my final book in the series, but at least I am happier with the ending.

Cliché is an easy trap to fall into. Movies, especially the plethora of prequels and sequels they engender, are full of them. Books, too. A good writer should be careful to spot them as they arise and deal with them before it’s too late.

Damn! Before it’s too late… A cliché!

________________________________________________________
* It always strikes me as a bit weird: surely the only person not looking at the explosion is the one who set it off. Think about it. The villain blows something up and the police don’t know who to arrest. Try arresting the only person in the street NOT looking at the explosion!

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

The Thot Plickens

Some writers plot. Some don’t. I sort of do it. I don’t sit down and carefully write out everything that’s going to happen in my books. If I did, I would no longer be interested in writing them. I sort of have an outline, or at least a vague idea of what I think might happen, and go from there.

After that, I start writing along the lines of what I had in mind for that chapter, and make it up as I go. I discover new things as I write, develop new ideas for the characters, and sometimes things go in a very different way to what I had intended.

Take today for instance. I was writing a scene in my new book (I hate the word ‘Chapter’. I don’t regard the divisions within my books as chapters, although they are, mostly. I call them scenes. My background as an actor coming back to haunt me, I guess). Anyway, I was writing a scene and half way through I had an idea that changed the direction of the entire book. That’s ok. I think the new direction is a superior one. The scene didn’t end at all the way I had planned. But that’s writing.

Such irresponsible activity usually means that I have to reconsider other chapters, particularly what has gone before, and re-write them to conform to the new stuff.

Occasionally, I do plot something out in detail. Below are some notes I made for several scenes in my novel ‘An Unkindness of Ravens’ which detailed two sets of characters doing two things separately from each other. Most of the ideas on these pages ended up being scrapped anyway. But this level of detail in my pre-planning is rare.

20140829_101236_0

Usually it’s more general ideas, most of which I won’t use eventually. This makes my writing more dynamic, and to me more interesting.

Some writing teachers abhor plotting. Some encourage it. One, namely James Scott Bell, suggests you try a combination of both, or neither. It’s up to the writer. I am kind of the school that goes with, ‘Well, if I know what’s going to happen, I don’t feel inclined to write it anymore.’ On the other hand, ‘winging it’ from start to finish has a lot of dangers, too. The only writer I knew who could wing it entirely and get away with it was Roger Zelazny, who is one of my influences and one of the best dialogue writers I ever had the pleasure of reading.

I guess writers do whatever it takes to produce the goods. I start and stop, do research when I discover I need to, write the ending sometimes very early on so I know where I’m going, think up characters and then try to justify why they are in the story, realise they aren’t, get rid of them and bring them back later when some justification for their existence comes to mind.

Writing is dynamic, and pre-plotting sometimes gets in the way of a good tale. So I do a bit of both. I think it works.

Russell Proctor, http://www.russellproctor.com