The best compliments I have ever received about my writing were all some derivative of the following: “I want more.”
That is the bit of ambrosia all of us yearn for. If we write for an audience, we spend our time willing life into the empty whiteness of a blank page and searching and sifting through life for those bits of magic to put in our jars, hoping that’ll be enough to coax our work to live.
The goal is an insatiable lust for our work, for the worlds and characters we funnel onto the page. How do we do that? Originality. Creativity. Skill. Luck. Any number of things go into it — I’m probably not alone when I say that I rather hope luck plays less a role than skill, but I don’t make the rules. And speaking of rules, here’s one from The 25 that sticks its fingers all over that “originality and creativity” thing:
17. Avoiding Clichés
Everyone “gets” clichés. That’s why they show up virtually everywhere. Clichés may be thought of as overused and predictable, but few people complain about movie car chases. For every person who doesn’t want “same old,” hundreds continue to enjoy stereotypical hard-boiled dicks helping dames in distress. Depending on your audience, a well-placed cliché can be more effective than an explanation.
Nevertheless, we need folks like you to buck the trend. So here are some ways to spend a half-hour:
- Create a cliché-free protagonist: you. Choose a career you once contemplated. Change your age, gender, race. Investigate something that intrigues you. Invent a situation that boosts your heart rate. Send your character to a place you’d like to visit. Now write.
- Remove from a work unnecessary parts of speech—such as replacements for the perfectly acceptable said, and words like angrily to reveal how someone slams a door. Say no more than readers need to know; let their imaginations work.
- I’ve intentionally loaded my five contributions to this article with more than my usual share of clichés. Circle them. Do it now. The early bird gets the worm.
I think it’s perfectly acceptable to use cliches if you use them sparingly — about as sparingly as you might sprinkle salt on your ramen. What I mean by that is that if you’re going to say something verbatim like, “Her skin was as soft as silk, as white as snow. She was as pretty as a picture.” — if you’re going to say that, turn it on its head somehow. “Her frozen body would occupy a place in my memory that amnesia couldn’t touch, cocooned forever by winter and premature death.” There. It’s not the best example perhaps, but the cliches from the first bit get flipped at you with a catapult in the second bit. Yeah, her skin is soft and white. She froze to death in the middle of winter. She’s pretty as a picture? Yeah. A picture of a loved one, dead. Forever.
I think the masters of the craft manage to tease us with something familiar and then jerk us round the bend so quickly that we end up somewhere we didn’t expect to go. They disturb our expectations in words so tantalizing and succulent that we can’t help but follow. They make a cliche into something tangible and create art from contrast. If you can learn how to continually surprise and delight (or horrify, or titillate) your readers, you will spark that insatiable hunger for more.
All writing serves to forge a connection. If you’re reading this, I’ve taken my thoughts and implanted them into your brain without ever opening my mouth. (Except to breathe, because I’m a little stuffy right now.) It’s almost like telepathy — in fact, I’ve heard a writer describe writing as such. I can create an image of an elephant with one tusk wearing a fez, and you’ll see it when you read that whether you want to or not. It’s a connection, and if you feed enough magic into it, you’ll start to feel a tug on the other end. A pulling sensation that means your readers want more. More story. More characters. More of the beating thrumming heart you created from that blank page.
A well-timed cliche can create a basic connection with a reader, but it’s like communicating with two cans and a ball of yarn. It’ll only be so long before your readers search for something to keep that feeling going, and if you deliver something original and alluring, that connection changes to fiber optics.
Use your jar of magic to infuse your words with bait — bait that will hook your readers to your stories for as long as you write them.
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