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It's Supposed to Sound Like That

by Fred on 1-15-2009 Category: Articles

Every beginning writer needs to understand something: your writing will be full of cliches whether you like it or not. You know what they are, and you know you're supposed to avoid them, but you'll write them anyway.

No doubt you've spotted cliches, contrived plot twists, and flat characters in other people's work. The first time you sit down to write something of your own, none of that reading experience will matter. You'll still make those same mistakes. You'll ignore them. You'll rationalize them. You'll excuse them. Yes, you will. Everybody does.

"It's homage," you'll say. It should still provide a fresh perspective. Otherwise we might as well read the original.

"It's a genre standard." If it hurts the story, it doesn't matter how standard it is.

"But that's how it really happened." Accept the possibility that your life does not make for compelling fiction. Change it to be a good story or save it for Thanksgiving at your mother's house. No one gives a shit what really happened.

"It's deliberate." A deliberate cliche is still a cliche. You're unlikely to change readers' minds by telling them you annoyed them on purpose.

Have you ever been to an open mic night? You know the douchebag who explains that all his songs consist of nothing but atonal twangs because they're experimental, and they're supposed to sound like that? No matter how many times he mentions Frank Zappa, the essence of his argument is that he's content to suck. Why would it matter to him, anyway? He's just trying to score scenester pussy, and absorbing scowls from alcoholics is easier than learning how to tune a guitar. When you use cliches to add postmodern subtext or whatever your stupid excuse is... yeah, that's you. That's what you sound like.

Even seasoned writers make these mistakes. There's probably a psychological term for it. When you're buried in your story, your contrivance seems more acceptable. It's there for a reason, dammit. That's why an unbiased reader is often more capable of spotting a story's cliches than its own writer.

If you've been writing long enough, you should already know the disappointment of reading one of your old shelved manuscripts for the first time in two years. The hokey split-personality plot twist that seemed so brilliant when you wrote it... see, it's an homage to Hitchcock, and besides, lots of other stories have done it, right? You know better now, and it hurts.

Don't worry. You get better at curbing those habits with practice. Recognizing cliches and avoiding them in your own writing are two different skills.

One of my common mistakes: when some element of the plot is weak or I don't want to put effort into improving it, I glaze over it as fast as I can and hope nobody notices. Sometimes I don't even realize I'm doing it. I rationalize it.

In an early draft of a mystery I wrote, a detective finds a lockbox in a missing girl's hotel room. Another character had already found the box but left it locked. The rationale: he didn't want to break it in case the girl returned. Maybe a reasonable explanation for some people, but not for this guy. He's a brute, and he's been going crazy trying to find this girl for days.

Two friends who read the draft were quick to point it out: this guy would have opened the box by any means necessary. I stepped back and thought about it, and they were absolutely right. I had needed to give the detective a clue to the girl's whereabouts that the other character wouldn't have known. The lockbox was the first idea that occurred to me. I gave myself the lame excuse about the guy not wanting to break it because lame excuses are easier to make than good fiction. After my friends called me on it, I got rid of the lockbox and devised a more plausible way for the detective to track the girl.

Funny thing is, that weak plot element wasn't even difficult to fix. I gave it a day or two of thought and rewrote the relevant scenes in a few hours. Unfortunately, rewriting something will never be as easy as blowing it off. That's why I'm writing this blog instead of crime dramas for HBO. At least I'm getting practice.