Monday 16 March 2015

Reinventing Clichéd Scenes

The good thing about clichés is that they impart information quickly and reliably. If someone says it’s raining cats and dogs, you know exactly what they mean.

The bad thing about clichés is that they get overused which leads to them feeling unoriginal and lazy. When you know what’s someone’s saying before they’ve even finished saying it you stop paying attention. And a reader who isn’t paying attention is not what a writer wants.

Weeding out familiar phrases isn’t too difficult. Getting rid of overused scenes and premises is not so easy.

Certain types of scenes occur so often because readers want them—in some cases even expect them. They want the guy and the gal to end up together; they want the evil plot to be foiled. And different genres have tropes that readers enjoy seeing again and again. But while commercially there may be an acceptance of the same old story, artistically it can feel less satisfactory for writers and more discerning readers.

So how do you write scenes that readers are eagerly anticipating without simply producing an imitation of every other book already out there?

You can, of course, come up with a new twist on an old idea. Most likely, anything that’s get you excited enough to put pen to paper will have an element of this. But a book is a long thing, and you will be hard pressed to come up with a completely new take on every scene. In fact, it’s probably not advisable even if you wanted to. Most readers want some degree of the familiar and relatable, not something so different that it feels surreal or experimental.

What you can do to lift these kinds of scenes is to give your character a little self-awareness.

If a guy in a leather jacket carrying a shotgun kicked your door down and said, “Come with me if you want to live,” it might occur to you that what was happening was like something out of a movie. And that awareness might make you not react the way a character in a story would. In fact, running away from this nutjob might  be your best option.

You might not go alone into the attic to check out that sound of someone sharpening a knife. You might not ask the genie for a million bucks. You might even ask a direct question of a person acting suspiciously to avoid any misunderstandings.

Most characters in fiction act like they’ve never read a book or seen a movie. They take things at face value, go along with whatever other people want, and are taken by surprise when the obvious happens. 

Wait, you mean the kidnappers never planned to keep their end of the deal? How could they be so dishonest?

The thing is, though, characters can’t directly reference their predicament. Your female lead can’t make the observation that having the two hunkiest guys in school fight over her is like something out of a YA novel if, in fact, she is in a YA novel. It draws too much attention to itself and you want the reader to focus on the content not the medium. It’s not impossible to write that kind of meta-fiction, but it will feel jokey.

In most cases it’s not the clichéd premise that’s the problem, it’s the reactions of the characters. But if you allow the character to be aware of the trope (without overtly having her state it) you can take the scene in more interesting directions.

For example, if our YA lead’s reaction to having Jim and Jon vie for her affections is to say, “Great, you can do my book report for me and you can pick up my dad’s dry cleaning. Thanks.” Let’s see how deep their love is now.

If she’s aware of where being timid and flattered by a little attention can lead you, she’ll be less likely to blindly go that way.

Knowing that something to good to be true probably is, that people have agendas they aren’t telling you about, that doing what other people want you to do is a schmuck’s game, can give a character a healthy dose of original thinking.

Even if the writer knows the guy promising the world is going to deliver, that doesn’t mean the character does. And knowing that even handsome millionaires can turn out to be douche bags is something we should all be aware of.

If you found this post interesting please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Adding some suspicion even when you the writer knows it's all right adds something new.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

This has given me some good ideas to mull over. Especially about not asking the genie for a million bucks. What if instead . . .

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite authors wrote into one of her stories a character mentioning a paranormal romance novel. Which is what the book was. I found it hilarious the way she wrote and is one of my favorite scenes in the story.

Unknown said...

Nice. Sounds like it will help make a really good book.

Vashtiqvega43 said...

Hello! Interesting article. Thanks for sharing. Pinning!

LD Masterson said...

I enjoy it when a character makes a reference to something being fiction, if it's done well. My favorite was a character facing a bizarre series of happenings who said, "If you wrote this in a book, no one would believe it."

Chemist Ken said...

I find that one of the best ways to overcome a character doing something cliché-like is to make sure that character, or someone else in the scene, either makes a comment or have an interior thought about it. It's the author's way of telling the reader, "Yes, I know what I did. Just give me a chance and I'll make it worth your while."

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