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Friday, February 23, 2007


Curing cliches

The other night I and others were watching a DVD of a movie that suffered from an on-the-nose script. ('On the nose' being, I'm told, a screenwriter's phrase meaning that the things characters say are too obvious, often because themes, motivations and character thoughts are simply stated, rather than being demonstrated through what they say and do. It's the dialogue equivalent of breaking the show-don't-tell rule.) The story was all right, there were decent characters, but the dialogue clunked horribly, because every time the characters had a thought, particularly one that tied in with the Message of the movie, they simply struck a pose and declared it, in a way that nobody would in real life.

Well, we were half-watching this movie and amusing ourselves by rewriting the dialogue to make it work better, and it occurred to me that we'd stumbled on a good technique for writers who struggle with cliches.

Everyone uses cliches sometimes, but sometimes they can infest your thinking and get into your work, producing something that's far less fresh than you want it to be. What to do about that?

Looked at pro-actively, it's perfectly fixable. A cliche always expresses a thought and emotion. Rather than letting it worry you if the dialogue is coming out cliched first time round, go with it: write the scene, let the characters speak in cliches, and see where the action takes you. Because once you've done that, you've got a first draft, which is to say, you've got something to improve.

Got your on-the-nose first draft? Okay, now read it over. Look at the cliches, and think about the emotion they're trying to express. Imagine yourself in the character's situation, feeling that emotion. Then forget about the aim of the plot, the message, the theme, the end you're trying to reach, and just picture that emotion in that isolated moment. And think to yourself: if I was feeling that, what would I say?

Suppose you're writing a scene in which a husband has seen his wife with her ex-boyfriend and is worried she's cheating on him, particularly as he's always worried about whether he's good enough for his wife. You could have him say 'I was never good enough for you, was I?', or you could sit back and take a breath: what's he feeling? Primary answer: insecure. And if you're feeling insecure, do you necessarily risk saying something grandiose like that, or do you angle for answers indirectly? Do you pick a fight over something trivial, perhaps, to test her patience with you, or do you get clingy, or do you drop hints that you're feeling bad to see if she cares, or do you try to undermine her confidence in case confidence equates to being too good for you? Stuck for an option? Think about what else he's feeling. Is he primarily angry with her? Undermining her or picking a fight seems likely. Is he hurt that she's keeping things from him? He's more likely to drop hints in the hopes of reassurance. Frightened she'll leave him? Dropping hints again, or being clingy. It may or may not take the scene in a different direction, and if it does, go with it, because now the scene is working naturally, but either way, you're working with how a character would really behave, rather than on simply declaring how they feel.

It's helpful to remember that in cliched writing, characters are often speaking to the audience, making sure readers know what they're thinking and feeling. But characters don't know the audience is there: they need to speak to each other. So take into consideration how they expect the other characters will react to what they say, which will often make cliches redundant: people frequently speak to have an effect on others, and cliches aren't a very effective means of getting that. Forget about the audience: if the characters are acting on their emotions, the audience will be able to work out what those are without being told.

And the thing about the first draft is, it's given you a rough guide to what those emotions are.

Cliched drafts, in short, can be very useful in laying out the blueprint for a scene. Treat it as if it was a mock-up. Then forget about what you were trying to achieve, look at what the characters have done, think about what motivated them to act that way, and think about what you'd actually say if you had that motivation. And with a bit of luck, you've got a second draft that you're much happier with.

We should play another game. It would be: "If you were a cliche piece of dialogue, what cliche would be you be?"

Mine would be something along the lines of, "Call me mad, will they?!" *followed by maniacal laughter and lightning and thunder all about the castle*
I've always had a fondness for 'Dead! Dead! and never called me mother!', which is pretty good melodrama. I don't think it really applies, though.

Considering that I'm in the middle of a horrible plot crisis with Book Number Two, and I have a deadline to meet with it, I think I'll have to go with 'Time and tide wait for no man.' The bastards.
Ooh. Plot crisis? Want some help brainstorming? Though I know you said you don't like to discuss works in progress. Have you reversed the polarity? Sent in a mysterious mentor of dubious lineage? Is the character a farmboy (or farmgirl)? Are there any magic swords involved?
Well, thank you for the kind offer, but I think I'll keep it under wraps - I always get embarrassed talking about work in progress. Appreciate the thought, though. :-)

I've decided to simply charge at it with my eyes closed, make a big plot mess and sort it all out later. If you see a writer with an imaginary mop wandering around cyberspace in a few months time looking shell-shocked, that'll be me.
The problem with cliched dialogue is that most of us talk in cliches at least 50 per cent of the time, so cliched talking is realistic!

But who wants to read/listen to/watch cliches all the time?
What I find difficult is spotting the evil cliches.

Kit, I believe that one method of fixing a plot problem is to have a body discovered, or to have someone take a shot at the protag. Any help?

Yeah, yeah, I can't spot cliches....
Evil cliches? Suddenly I'm picturing little sentences wearing burglar masks sneaking around the edges of pages. This is a cheering idea, somehow.

Thanks for the suggestion, sqrl. Actually the gun hasn't been invented yet in my current fictional world - but then again, it would definitely be unexpected. Hmm...
Have a fictional, distant relative die and leave your protagonist a fortune! Hey, if it was good enough for the Victorians, it's good enough for me!
Tell you what: I'll have a hitherto unknown rich uncle abandon his farm, charge into the room with a gun, take aim on the heroes and accidentally shoot himself. That should cover everything, I think.

Ah, the book is better already, I can tell. :-)
Nah, the gun should blow up in his face because a squirrel put some nuts down the barrel. Or the bible should hit a bullet...no, wait, I think I've got that the wrong way round.
Ah, a cameo appearance! Anyone else want to be in this scene?
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