A to Z Challenge 2013

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Avoiding Cliches In Our Writing

How many times have you started out with a great topic and found it meandering down well-worn paths? If you think about how many books have been written over the ages, the probability that your particular story is fresh and unique is fairly low. That's not to say that a story cannot be interesting, and even contain new elements. But it's safe to say that there are redundancies in literature. It's a generalization to be sure, but one that rings true in some respects.

So how do you take your particular tale and break new ground? One problem I find myself encountering time and time again is this. I have a great idea for a story. I start writing it out, I get some portion of the way in, and then I start to struggle with avoiding becoming "one of the masses". After all, I want my story to be unique, but unlike alot of writers, I rarely know where my story is going to go after it leaves the starting gate.

We can even make this more simplistic than the grand view of a story. How do you avoid cliches in sentence structure, in turns of phrase? Do you edit as you go or do you just let the cliches fly across the page? I think it's probably quite difficult to avoid our own tendencies towards certain words, certain phrases. That's what makes writing so difficult (at least one of the aspects of writing, anyway). If anyone has exercises or advice on how they deal with this, I'm all ears.

5 comments:

Lady Glamis said...

Well, you are addressing two things here - the idea of the story and the actual prose of the story. As far as ideas go for writing, it's all been done before. I was talking to my friend Natalie about this the other night. We talked about how yes, the same stories are told over and over. But there's a very good reason for that. It's because there are certain themes, ideas, and stories, that resonate with the human race. It's what we want to read. The only thing that matters is HOW that story is told. And unique characters can also alleviate the cliche of that story told yet again...

As far as avoiding cliches in writing? I think that's where our voice comes into play. I can't comment much more on voice, though, or my head will explode. It's one of those subjects that I can't put my finger on any more than I can define literary. Take the can of worms I opened over at The Literary Lab for example.

Danyelle said...

I let my characters take over. Yes, the tale may have been told before, but never quite the way they manage it. :D

Rebecca Woodhead said...

I agree with Lady G - there are only so many stories. A recent book puts it at 7. This bugged the heck out of me when I realised it and I fought against it for YEARS but now I realise it's true and find it interesting to work out which of these stories I'm writing. Usually you end up writing a stock-story-combo. It's like saying there's only 5 - or even 6 - senses. Who cares? Look what you can do with them!

Word-wise, bring on the cliches! I throw cliches at my work in two places: 1/ my blogs and 2/my first drafts.

There's a reason for this. Blogs work best when they're conversational and first drafts work best when they're creative. Both call for fast writing and no inhibition. The editing comes later. For blogs, the cliches remain - who cares? - but for literature, the knife comes out and the cliches are slaughtered without squeemishness.

I used to be a singer and there was something unique in the first take - the first time you record a piece or sing it. If you make it up on the hoof, the moment when it arrives can be even more amazing. It can't be replicated. Ever. It's the same with writing. If you're editing and looking for faults AS you're creating then you're not being constructive, you're being destructive. The same is true for marketing, worrying about agents and publishers and readers etc. Can't be done. The first draft is for you alone (or you and your muse). It has to be or it will be thoroughly derivitive and cynical.

It's like your creative muscle is your bicep and your editing muscle is your tricep. They're both important but they work against each other. If you're trying to use them both at the same time be prepared for problems!

You can't create something new if you're eaten up with terror about how everyone else will feel about it. The bullying of your work comes about later - that's the editing bit - worry about what people will think at that point.

For me, creating the first draft is a necessarily selfish act. I'm the only person on the face of the planet who can write my stories the way I do - just as is the case for every other writer - so I need to make sure that I'm the one writing them. Otherwise, my school teachers and literary critics and books-on-writing all end up writing the story for me and it falls flat. You'll notice on my blog that I've written thousands and thousands of words ABOUT writing but not one jot of my actual novels. You don't even know what they're called yet. There's a reason for that. ;)

Getting back to the subject - wandered off a bit there - I think cliches are brilliant. They're shorthand for what you want to say in your first draft. My advice would be: when you go back and edit, take them out of everything except dialogue. People speak in cliche all the time so if you remove all cliche from dialogue it will sound stilted but elsewhere, remove the cliche or make up a new one!

Eric said...

Ladies, thank you very much for the input. Rebecca, you have said alot here. You might want to even put a post about this on your blog, because you have a great deal of good information here.

Rebecca Woodhead said...

thanks Eric! I was actually thinking that when I wrote the bicep bit because I had a sudden 'yeah, that's what it is' moment.