By Mark Stevens
Is it possible to write a 100,000-word novel that is devoid of clichés?
Completely scrubbed free of all tired descriptions, predictable scenes, over-used descriptions, seen-them-all-before characters?
A panel* on clichés at Left Coast Crime last month in Portland sparked my thinking.
First, check this out:
The word cliché is drawn from the French. (My source is Wikipedia; there are several versions of this.)
In printing, "cliché" was the sound made by a printing plate—one cast from movable type—when it was used. This printing plate is called a … wait for it …
When letters were set one at a time, it made sense to cast a phrase used repeatedly, as a single slug of metal. Thus, “cliché” came to mean such a ready-made phrase.
Cliché—ready-made. Too easy. Banal, commonplace, shop-worn, old-hat, hackneyed.
Sound like a novel you want to read?
A side note, also from Wikipedia: Most phrases now considered cliché originally were regarded as striking, but have lost their force and impact through overuse. The French poet Gérard de Nerval once said "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”
OK, imbeciles, join me over here in the land of predictability and tell me: how do you avoid them? How do you avoid the ready-made crap?
These were a few cited by the Left Coast Crime panel:
The sassy Latina detective, say. Or staging a high-speed chase in the city (and no cops follow or give chase as well). The “slight” gunshot wound in the shoulder, yet our hero carries on. Isn’t a ticking clock, the device itself, a cliché?
Here’s one I can’t stand: the bad guy manages to bring a knife a few millimeters from our hero’s eyeballs, yet the hero’s resistance is j-u-s-t enough to hold it off. Ack!
There are cliché scenes, cliché gestures, cliché sayings, cliché lines of dialogue, too. "Cover me, I'm going in!" "Is this some kind of sick joke?"
How do you keep the writing fresh, original?
Fill in the blank. As tough as _____. As cool as a _____.
I mean, 100,000 words—all those characters, all those scenes and all that prose: how do you make sure it’s all original? Fresh?
And, should it be?
Wouldn’t that be exhausting? Can an entire cast of characters in a well-populated novel, every bit of description and every line of dialogue … be original?
Martin Amis thinks so: “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”
So there’s a standard for you.
Worth shooting for?
* The LCC panel was The Taste of Copper and the Smell of Cordite: Clichés in Crime Fiction. Panelists included David Corbett, Lisa Alber, Blake Crouch, Bill Fitzhugh and James Ziskin.