To cliché or not cliché…
…that is the question. When it comes to writing, clichés are sometimes difficult to avoid. The room was pitch black. Her dress was snow white. There were weird and wonderful creatures everywhere. She had smouldering eyes. There was a blinding light. We use clichés like this all the time when we talk about things, so it should come as no surprise if you ever find yourself tempted to use one in your book – especially if your book is about a pretty girl in a white dress who lives in a dark room with some strange animals. With dialogue, clichés are particularly tempting, because that’s just how people speak. After all, the reason clichés are clichés is because everybody uses them, so it makes sense for a character to use the odd cliché here and there, particularly if they’re not that imaginative.
Clichés are so ingrained into our culture that it’s often hard to realise when you are using them. Your main character may have hair that flowed like silk, and perhaps her skin crawled at a certain point in the story when she was scared. You’re probably thinking there’s nothing wrong with these descriptions, and there isn’t really. But the fact remains that they are still clichés. As a writer, you might take extra care to avoid resorting to clichés in your plot (unless you’re Dan Brown of course, which you won’t be because no-one famous reads this blog), but are you equally vigilant when it comes to the words you use to tell your story?
And this all leads to the question – is it really that bad to use clichés in your descriptions? The answer really depends on what you are writing, and how high a standard you are setting for yourself. My books aren’t exactly high art, so if a cliché makes it in to the final draft, I’m not particularly bothered – in fact sometimes, I actually think it makes something easier to read. But I will at least be aware of when it is happening, and knowing this makes me try and think of a better way of putting things when it comes to the second draft. For instance, in the very first chapter of Time Rep, the original draft described Geoff’s sofa as being “littered with newspapers.” In the final draft, “newspapers were flung across the sofa.”
Now, this may seem a very minor description to highlight, but I think it points to the role descriptions should play in a story. Done right, descriptions should do more than just paint a picture for the reader. They should be little stories in themselves. Clichés tend to fail in doing anything more than describing the scene because they are too generic, and we just read over them without giving them a second thought. If you take a moment to describe the scene in a more original way though, your words can do so much more.
Think about the newspaper example. When Geoff’s sofa was littered with newspapers, what did you think? Perhaps you thought nothing much, apart from the fact that the sofa was a mess. Or maybe you thought this meant Geoff was a bit of a slob. But that was about it, right? However, when newspapers are flung across the sofa, you start to paint a different picture. You still know that there are newspapers on the sofa, but this time, their placement seems more deliberate, and the fact that they’ve been flung there implies that the mess is a bit more chaotic. It was only a minor change, but I think the reader got a little bit more from that sentence once the cliché was removed. And over the course of a whole book, this practice makes a substantial difference to what the reader gets out of the story.
Right, that’s all I have to say about that. On another note, I thought it might be a good idea to give a quick update on my new book. Basically, the first draft is done, some friends and my agent are reading it, and once I get their feedback, I’ll start to make a few tweaks here and there (assuming they don’t say it’s an unsalvageable mess!). I would love to tell you what it’s about, but until I know whether the thing is actually going to be published, I think it’s best if I keep quiet for now. However, as soon as I can announce something, you will hear it here first, unless you know me, in which case I’ll probably just tell you down the pub.
Stay tuned… (oh dear – what a cliché)