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Axe the Dreaded Cliche with Elizabeth Bailey



 

"The most essential gift for a good writer," said Ernest Hemingway, "is a built-in shock-proof shit detector."

How true. Though usually we have to grow one rather than having it built in. My own acquired detector is always on the look-out for clichés. There are so many time-worn phrases that don't even feel like clichés, that we are easily tricked into using them.

The boon of the cliché is its instant recognizable signal. It does what it says on the tin. (Oops, there it is.) But this is also its liability. It's too recognizable. It doesn't surprise the reader, and thus doesn't hook him into your prose. Finding another way to say it, one that is uniquely your way, is key to finding your voice.

It's not just another way of saying how blue the sky is, how her heart pounded or announcing the effect of shock. It's looking for a completely different angle on the subject ('thinking outside the box').

Why talk about the sky at all? Why not concentrate on light and shadow, for example, and its effect on the surroundings. For that matter, why not take shock out into the environment and examine what the shocked person sees and how it changes in their consciousness? Instead of pounding hearts, what about the heightened sense of sound outside the body?

It can be more effective to do the opposite of what is going on. If the situation is interior with the person, go outside for your effects. If the situation is exterior, go inside and show their reaction.

This is only one way of avoiding cliché. There are as many ways as there are writers. The key is first to start noticing the clichés in your work, and then backtrack and think how you could express this almost using another dimension. Surprisingly, once you have forced yourself through it for a while, the practice becomes part of your craft and it isn't nearly as difficult to do as you might think.

And when you read, look at how other writers do it. At the least, it'll hone your shit-detector as you start noticing the clichés they missed.
 
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HIDDEN FLAME
Elizabeth Bailey

In the tradition of Regency Romance, a gothic and scandalous tale of passion and a tangled inheritance. Theda’s hopes of security fall apart when she becomes companion in an ill-kept and miserable mansion where quarrels abound and her employer is dying.

13 comments:

  1. Welcome to R&E Elizabeth! Great post and yes, so true!

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  2. Thank you, Nas. Delighted to join you.

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  3. I've read books where the characters use cliches just to make fun of them. ;)

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    1. Yes, exactly, Kelly, when they are serving a purpose, it's a good use for them.

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  4. Such an important thing to look for! Funny how some things can be cliche in one region and not another (like the tin one above--that totally didn't even register with me, mainly because 'tin' isn't a word used around here very often!). Makes me think at least! :)

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    1. Indeed, Meradeth. The tin one is peculiarly English, I think. It's particularly annoying because it's in an advert that eventually drives you scatty.

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  5. cliche can work once in a while, nice cover too

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    1. Absolutely, Pat. They have their uses. Thanks on the cover!

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  6. Good post. I try to eliminate them from my writing as much as possible, but I don't want to go the other extreme and use so many original phrases that the reader gets thrown out of the story. It's happened to me as a reader, and I don't enjoy it. Everything in moderation, right?

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    1. Agree with you completely, Milo. That's the key, isn't it? If it throw the reader, whatever it is, it needs to change. And that goes for original phrases as much as cliches.

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  7. Awww poor Theda - surrounded by such squalid negativity! :-(

    I hope to continue honing in my shit-detector! LOL! Thanks for the tips oh how to - they really help! take care
    x

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    1. Thank you! Yes, she has a tough time for a while. Glad it was helpful for you.

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  8. Hi Nas, Hi Elizabeth,

    I used to think cliches were handy. Now I dread them.

    I think that there's nothing like putting your manuscript away till you don't remember it anymore, if you don't mind doing that. Then looking it over.

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