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Monday, October 21, 2013

THE ABC’S OF HOW ‘NOT’ to WRITE SPECULATIVE FICTION: C is for CLICHÉS


FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO ARE NEW TO MY BLOG, this particular post is from my non-fiction writing primer, The ABC's of How NOT to Write Speculative Fiction. Instead of reissuing the book which was originally published through The Copper Pig Writers Society (which also publishes On Spec magazine up here in Canada), I'm rewriting sections and sharing them here. Today's ABC topic? Clichés. Most of us know enough to avoid them, but because they're so prevalent in our everyday language, they're easy to fall into when we write.

CLICHES COME IN SEVERAL SIZES AND VARIETIES. The larger clichés tend to be structural – plot elements like the openings or endings of a story can be clichéd. Smaller clichés, like those found in overly used phrases, tend to be word specific.

Like character stereotypes, we use clichés when we don’t think about what we’re writing. They show up when we try to set down our thoughts before they disappear, and sometimes, they lodge in our heads. At other times, we use them because we like the sound of them, especially if we’re learning our craft or experimenting with style. The only place for a cliché when it’s functioning as description, is as a place-holder. If you’re working on a first draft and trying to get the words down, it’s fine to leave your cliché’s where they are, just so long as you replace them with something original (and reflective of the story in some way) once you revise.

Most clichés are obvious; others, less so. It didn’t take me long to find the following clichés embedded within a few manuscripts picked at random from the On Spec slush pile. I've italicized them to make them stand out: 
  • Jack fought like a creature possessed.
  • The day began as all others
  • This immortal coil of a man lay before me, gasping out his last dying breath
  • He died thinking bitter thoughts.
  • And so time passed, as it always does, and we were left to our own devices
  • We were packing heat – big beautiful chrome babies
  •  They led a bucolic existence
  • Yet, the truth could not be denied. It was staring us right in the face.
  • After all, tomorrow was another day.
  • Just another perfect day, here in paradise.
  •  It would be the death of him, yet.
Larger clichés usually reflect setting or plot. The following openings illustrate clichéd beginnings I've seen too many times: 
  • The Void: She awoke to nothingness. All she could see around her was white – white walls, white ceiling, white door. I suspect what’s really intimidating our writer is the white page in front of her. Not knowing where to start, she opens with a writing exercise – write what you see – in the hopes that it will spark a better idea.
  • A Bad Awakening: He awoke to screaming – his own. The screaming opening is a variation of the white room opening, except the writer is more of an auditory person rather than a visual one.
  • The Diary: October 31st, 2010: It seems a useless endeavor considering my circumstances, but I shall attempt to write down these last days in the hopes that they might make sense to any who survive… As I mentioned in an earlier ABC post on Action, the diary premise is usually a frame for the actual story. Solution? Drop the frame and start with the story.
  • The Dream: I am trapped inside. I can see the water rising up the sides of the windows… A dual purpose cliché, the opening dream cliché is interchangeable with the ending dream cliché.
The following endings are also clichés: 
  • The Dream: It seemed so real, but it was all a dream. (This worked well for Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland, but for no one else, since.)
  • The Trap - There's No Way Out: They’re coming…I can hear the scamper of their feet getting louder and louder… (or a similar type of 'it's going to be a horrible death' end.)
  • The Legalities: I ain’t sayin’ nothing more… I know my rights! I want my phone call! (Very 'noir' which worked well in its day, but needs a fresher approach now.)
  • Sweet Revenge: Because, as it turned out, he did have the last laugh. (Revenge endings can be great, but they need to be much more solid and original than this feeble 'last laugh' end. This is also an example of 'telling' rather than 'showing'.)
  • Deux ex Machina: And so, young one, this is why you’ve been born with two heads, and why we had to intervene… (Sometimes, you can actually get away with the gods/helpers intervening, but they must be actual characters in the story, where their presence has already been established. In this example, they've been brought in as a convenient way to tidy things up in the end.)
When I originally wrote this next section, I considered the following settings clichéd. Seven years have passed since then. To quote a cliché, the customer is always right, and editors are sometimes wrong. Here’s what I didn’t like back then, and how I've done an about face, which goes to show that anything considered a cliché doesn't necessarily remain one if the approach is new:
  • Post Nuclear World War or Apocalyptic settings. (On Spec put out our Apocalypse Issue last year. It was one of our best. Douglas Smith won an Aurora award for his story in it - ‘The Walker of the Shifting Borderland’, which I edited. Congratulations, again, Douglas.)
  •  Dome stories or escapes from Dome worlds (Under the Dome, the television series, started up last July. CBS is renewing it for a second season. Stephen King is writing the premier episode.)
  • New Planet Edens (James Cameron’s Avatar grossed more than 2 billion.)
  • Thieves who meet in a medieval tavern (or a futuristic bar) to plan a heist. (It wasn’t a bar, but a hobbit hole –The Hobbit opened in just this way.)
Bottom Line? Clichés are any phrase or idea that's become stale. Our job as writers is to offer the reader a fresh approach and entertaining prose. 

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