By Cynthia Ray
I may be preaching to the choir here, but I have an ax to grind about cliché’s so lets take the bull by the horns and make hay while the sun shines, knowing that we can capture some low hanging fruit by thinking outside of the box. In fact, just thinking about clichés makes me rage like a bull or sick as a dog. When I read boring prose, riddled with cliché’s, I would like to shake the writer like a rag doll, and leave him/her lying limp as a noodle on the cold stone floor.
The French poet Gérard de Nerval once said, “The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”
Are you tired of reading about blood that tastes like iron or suns that shine brightly? The point is, cliché’s and overly used phrases and descriptions impose a dull, joyless tone to prose, like a warm soda that’s lost its fizz, but it’s easy to fall into patterns, clichés and unoriginal descriptions when writing.
Description is fictions garment. We can drape sensuous, words over the plot, the people and their world to make them vivid and alive. Or perhaps we carve away everything but the bones, and leave them transparent and stark against the landscape like an Andrew Wyeth painting.
The best fiction jumps up off the page and squeezes you. It makes you laugh, cry, taste and see – the words on the page are alive. Originality sparkles in good writing, and delights us with descriptions that surprise us, enabling us to see and experience something in a different way.
So how do we get that kind of tasty on our page? How do we root out flaccid and listless prose? Here are some ways that have helped me make my writing better:
- Once the story is written, out of my head and on the page, I go back and look for clichés or overly common, unclear, or boring descriptions. Every time I find one, I challenge myself to think of a new or different way to show what I mean. For example, in one of my stories I found the phrase, “It hit her like a ton of bricks.” Oh no! Since it was a futuristic story, I changed it to “it hit her like a chunk of space rubble.” Another time, I found “the sun burned my back”, and changed it to “The sun was the grating edge of a bloody knife on my back.”
- When I read, and find descriptions that haunt me, delight me or make me laugh, I write them down. They are instructive. When Dashiell Hammett’s Spade “grinned wolfishly, showing the edges of teeth far back in his jaw,” I am looking down into his mouth, and shivering. Or Albert Camus who spent his days “watching how the dwindling of color turned day into night,” makes see a day drained of color, and in the story gives an ominous tone. I’ve read books that I hated the character, but kept reading, because the writing was so beautiful it took my breath away.
- Make a list of common descriptions and clichés, and challenge yourself to come up with new ways to illustrate the concepts. In fact, if you pull the list from your own fiction it can be educational. Doing this exercise in a writing group is a lot of fun because you get to hear others creative efforts.
- Wherever you are, look around and write a description of it, of the furniture, the people, the walls, the floor. Then re-write, looking for new and different ways of describing it, or comparing to things that are not usually associated with the thing, for example, John Gaiman described a character as having the same shape and dimension as a coke machine. When I read that, I laughed. He could have said short and squat, but that would not have been nearly as interesting.
The goal is really to change how we see things, and to break out of our comfortable pathways of thinking. What ideas do you have for finding your own special and unique way of looking at the world?