Thursday, August 02, 2007

Why Bad Writing Can Destroy a Good Story: Cliches

When I pick up a book, I want to be immersed in the story - not worried about the writing. If the story is really good, I'm usually willing to overlook bad writing. But it still sort of casts a pall over the whole experience.

If there's one thing I've learned in my journey as a writer - both professionally (a.k.a. the day job) and personally, writing is very subjective. What one person thinks is wonderful, lyrical prose, another might think is wordy and flowery. Some people like sparse and simplistic while others need detail - and lots of it.

But there are fundamental rules of the writing craft that need to be present for it to be considered "good writing." (Of course, it can be argued that rules were made to be broken). Character arcs, rising action, pacing, etc. are all intrinsic to a good story. But when I start tripping over the language itself, there's a problem.

One element in particular that you should avoid at all costs is this: clichés.

What are clichés?

Dictionary.com defines them as as: a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse

It's not just the standard cliches we think of, like "sick as a dog" or "tough as nails." It pertains to phrases we've heard a thousand times before like, "when he touched her hand, a jolt of electricity went through her."

Why are they bad? Because there are so many different words in our language, so many differents ways to describe something, that when you use these cliches, you come across as being, well, a bit lazy. When I read a description of something that I've read innumerable times before, I tend to roll my eyes. Even worse, I am taken out of the story.

How do you avoid cliches when you write? Let's face it. It's a whole lot easier to use a cliche then it is to think of something original. But if you're a writer, you must think of something else. We're wordsmiths, and we have the opportunity to play with the language. We need to grab that opportunity and use it to our advantage.

Am I guilty of using cliches? You bet. But the key is to be aware of it - and then go back and change it during the editing process!

4 comments:

  1. Thank God for editing :)

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  2. Mmmm, those trip me up. I can't help but use cliches and then when I go back to re-read I'm like, "Ah man!" I can be terrible about them.

    Like Toni said thank God for editing! LOL

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  3. I hate tripping over "flowery", or non-conventional prose. I want a good story, told simply. I want the story to sizzle, not the words. After all, we don't eat the frying pan, we eat the bacon.

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  4. Aha! So now that I know which book you are talking about, I actually want to read it more to see about the cliched writing! ;o)

    Sorry to hear about your difficult summer and glad to hear your husband is better. Reading your posts, I have the same sense of too much to do and too little time to write - but we all make it work somehow, right?

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