Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Killing Cliches: A Murder Reference to Writing's Ruthless Saboteur

I'm not nice when it comes to awful dialogue choices writers make, especially if I'm not emotionally invested. It's one of my negative traits. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Some of it is snarky, and times (many times), it's an ugher. You know, when you roll your eyes and ughhh. That.

And it's not just dialogue, it's an action, a scene, or a character. I'll focus on lines and actions since my list can go on and on. If you're looking for the hub of cliche help, this is it. My list may be short(er) but I also have links to other references who have done a major service in hunting cliches and shooting them without remorse. To those blog writers: thank you. To the readers:

In order to kill your target, the cliche, you first must know what it is. When I was a kid, I asked my mom, and she had a difficult time explaining it to my inexperienced self. She said it's a term for when something is done or said from lots of people to the point of exhaustion. (I'm sure she really said, "it's a word describing another word used over and over and over...and over again." Because I would get that at whipper-snapper stage.) Your stage now, is understanding your cliche.

To start, here's a list of cliches I found while watching several shows and movies. A few are from Buffy (naturally), then others from my beloved series Blacklist, my child's movies, and some books I read. 

STAGE 1: Analyze Your Target

You think I--
(Doesn't matter what I think.)

Give me one reason I shouldn't shoot you.

I will be your judge, jury, and executioner.

Who do you think you are?
(I'm the one who...)

I'm sorry. 
(Yeah I'm sorry too.) 

Hang tight! (When someone is hanging upside down.)

  • Obvious puns aren't cliches but annoying.

Like a kid in a candy store.

Knife cuts anything like butter.

Star Wars references (I am your father.)

Well then, I guess I better get started.

I should've known.

At long last.

When lots of characters in a row have their own line. They're in a group and it seems out of place that each one would talk one after the other until everyone has a say. Usually happens at end of movies (Disney's Bolt) or my favorite Dragon Age games (scene of characters playing Wicked Grace in Inquisition).

Fair enough.

Slept like a baby. 

  • This is wrong for two things: babies do not sleep well and people say it like it's a good thing. 
Slept like a log.

  • Somebody got the idea about babies but forgot you can't change one word of a cliche to make it something new. 
It ain't over 'til it's over.

Or any reference to fat ladies singing.

A mother who cannot defend herself or her baby.
  • Oh no. We are resourceful. We either are packing or we have taken classes. Stories involving a mother losing or failing is old. Defense is increasing and women are fighters. And demonizing the natural biology of mothers is repulsive and you will lose your audience. If you're a screenwriter and do this (Once Upon A Time, I'm glaring at you), you should know that most females are mothers (and potential mothers) and stay at home to tend their wee ones.
  • If it's important that she loses the baby (kidnapping), a mother will do what ever is necessary to get her child back. Grizzly moms. Take them seriously. They might cry but I'm betting it's out of rage, not the whiny dribble I often see on television. ("Please. I just want my baby back." Heaven help (<---cliche) whoever thinks this is okay to say to the villain who just stole the child. Mad Max. Glaring at those writers too.)
  • I liked how the love interest in Croods was an orphan but it wasn't the main focus. It was only a key to relating with the father. Main prots as orphans where the writer tries to stir emotion from it is overdone. Orphans who are fighters or don't make a big deal of it (maybe don't even hint it) is okay. Using it to mainly care for character...just stop.
  • Bad Orphans: The Good Dinosaur, Devil May Cry
  • Good Orphans: Annie, Oliver Twist, The Croods
Hormonal Love.
  • I loved The Little Mermaid. I got older and loved Beauty and the Beast more. I grew up, got my heart broken, crushed, and dumped overboard, and I love the gradual displays of affection two people ha e for one another in the subtlest ways, each carrying an action and reaction in different scenes. Oh Sheriff Longmire, you kill me. But give me that stupid hook up for the sake of "she's a female so I must" (Titan AE) or that "he's so handsome, isn't he?" (The Little Mermaid) and I will be drooling, staring up at the ceiling, waiting for someone to wipe my chin. And neck. And change my shirt. Yuck. 
Long-range weapons used at short range.
  • And the hero wonders what they did wrong, or that they got in trouble for drama's sake. No cop does this. No person with basic gun training does this. It's super annoying to watch because humans are not that dumb. 
You're not him/her. Because if you do this, you'll be just like them. 

  • Oh. Ehm. Gee. Justifying not killing a murderer because character would "become like them." Batman does this specifically because the comic is about the colorful villains. We love the villains therefore need a pacifist who rejects his ninja training to keep our darlings alive. (And frankly, keeping them alive with their face as a mask--see Death of the Family--got really absurd, kinda fun, but just kill him already. We can re-read oldies.) Conflict (and criminals) would be out of a job if more justice fighters took self-defense seriously, and understood that criminals do criminal things and will not stop doing criminal things. 
  • Arrow. I stopped watching this show because I got sick of the hypocrisy. Green Arrow was so much fun...what happened? I think that actor happened. I don't know. Do you know? Tell me if you do.
STAGE 2: Hunt Your Target

It's okay to plug in cliches during your first draft. The first is about putting the story out there so you can see what it's about, not anyone else. Well, maybe your mom. Or significant other. And they'll tell you it's great. It's not. It's horrible. It's a first draft. Be okay with horrible. You wrote a book! Woo! If you're still writing, just keep pushing those words. But if you're revising, this is where you need to be: hunting cliches.

Now that you know what the cliches look like, read them over, highlight them, and decide if it's detestable, or it really is a part of the character's dialogue (because some characters will use cliche in certain genres, especially if you're going for snide, or satirical). If it's questionable, ask someone else. Have you considered a beta reader? I told my husband to point out cliches the instant he finds them in my work. He noticed I used purple prose in my first book. As a perfectionist, mistakes are intolerable, but they happen. I'm slowly accepting this, so if you're similar, I know your pain.

Once you find the cliches, do you shoot to kill, or let 'em live? It depends on you. Your book. But if the cliche really is annoying, and annoying to readers, then put it out of its misery. It will only make your book miserable to read.

STAGE 3: Redrum and Replace

Murder is simple. Weapon of choice, then kill. But getting away with it is the rub (<---cliche). The kill scene needs clean-up. Did you set it up properly so no trace of the cliche would be left behind (<---cliche)? Or will this cliche come back to haunt you (<---cliche) and wreak havoc (<---cliche) on your chapters?

Now here's something that's counter-productive to avoiding cliches: thinking outside the box (<---CLICHE!). 

Gawd. Why? No! Stop it! Just stop it! How do we stop it? The more people talk the more lines are used. The more they're used the more they're overused. So how do you avoid cliches altogether? 

KNOW them. 
Then BEND the rules. 

What? Yes. Bend the rules. Book's not going to be perfect (gasp). But it's a step. Take your cliche and make it a part of your book. Here's how:

  1. What is your book's genre?
  2. Who are your characters?
  3. How do they relate their dialogue to personality?

Are you a horror writer? Are your characters dark? Are you a happy Young Adult writer who like glitter and unicorns? Do you prefer vampires or wizards? Where are your characters from? Who's narrating? Okay, you got the idea. Now work with the cliche.

Example: He avoids her like the plague.

Rewrite: He won't touch a paper with her signature. 

Example: I should have known.

Rewrite: Nothing. 

  • Some sentences should just be omitted. If they realized something that was obvious to them, most people don't admit this out loud. They respond with an action or facial expression that means something is going on in their head that we can't see.

Example: At long last.

Rewrite: Hello. 

  • No really. That's cute. Especially if it's the antagonist. Remember Star Trek? ("Hi, Christopher. I'm Nero.")
Rewrite: And we're here.

  • Or you can turn this phrase into an action, like spreading arms out with a smirk kind of thing.
Example: I slept like a log.

Rewrite: I slept and lost three thousand years. Or: I slept. What year is it?

It's great to be creative with your characters' dialogue, especially the voice of your book. If you have specific objects in your world that only certain characters know about, use them in dialogue to avoid cliches. One character I always think of when doing this is Starfire. She said some crazy things in the comic and show (moreso the show...easier to notice when her breasts weren't taking up her talk bubbles). Only she understood what she meant and left other Titans bemused. 

There are lots of "avoiding cliche" tips out there, but not many that gave a solid solution, or at least a helpful example. They stated and addressed but the help was obscured. So I decided to write this for you in hopes that it'll help. Also, this is like a hub. Below are references to cliche posts I appreciated due to their unique insight and different areas of cliches. I suggest the Oxford one first as they actually offer solutions and not just "DON'T WRITE CLICHES MMMKAY?" Yuck. I'm here to help, not yell at you. Mostly. ;)

Further Study References for Cliches:

Oxford Dictionary - Rewriting to Avoid Cliches
681 Cliches to Avoid in your Creative Writing
How to Avoid Cliches in Fantasy Writing
Six Cliches to Watch Out For
(my favorite) 50 Cliched Dialogues to Ban from your Script

Tell me, what are your least favorite cliches? Is it on my list or in any of the links? Share with me! I'd love to hear 'em! 

And if this post helped, please reshare. I post to Pinterest and Tumblr. Find me. Follow me. 
Stalk me. :) 

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