Building Narrative Tension 2: A Trail of Delicious Crumbs

How much information do readers need to be able to fully understand what is going on in a story? It may appear an odd complaint, but sometimes when structuring a series of scenes to build tension, authors can be just as guilty of giving a reader too little plot information as too much. Sometimes it’s a case of giving them the right information at the wrong time. But what is certain is that readers don’t enjoy being treated like mushrooms: that is, being kept the dark and having stuff thrown at them unexpectedly.

To illustrate, let’s go back to our two resident Book Nanny characters: Simon and Julia. The last time we met Simon in Building Narrative Tension 1: The Tension Rises…dah, dah…doh?, he was trying to find a good time to tell Julia that their twenty-five year marriage was over. And so we continue:

MB900023351‘Finally they were alone. This was it. Simon grabbed the opportunity and blurted it out. Typically for Julia, she took the news rather stoically at first. ‘Well, that’s that, I suppose. There’s nothing to be done, is there?’ She inhaled deeply, as if trying to breathe in the entire room. A bitter, strangled cry escaped as she exhaled. It’s all her fault, isn’t it? She’s to blame, I know she is! This would never have happened if you hadn’t been offered that posting in Antarctica.’ 

So what’s the problem here? Well, personally, as a reader, rather than focussing on the emotion of the moment, I find myself instead taken completely by surprise by the reference to Antarctica. It even overshadows the news that someone else might be responsible for the couple’s marital difficulties. It’s one of those confusing reader moments when you feel obliged to go back to the earlier scene to check you haven’t missed something. Rather than drawing me further into the story, the revelation pushes me away. I feel excluded and left out, as though the characters and the author were in possession of some important information all along, but nobody bothered letting me in on the secret.

As a general rule, to avoid such unnecessary shocks to the narrative, you should err on the side of allowing the reader to be at least on the same knowledge level, or even one step ahead, of your POV characters rather than two jumps behind them. 

Reader anticipation is key when building suspense. So set your scene. Give your readers enough information to allow them to think ahead of your character and anticipate what happens next. Think of it as a trail of intriguing information crumbs which increasingly ‘ups the ante’ for a character, rather than bombarding readers with a series of plot surprises or sudden events which can come across as contrivances or manipulations.

So how do you decide which information is important to impart to a reader at the start and which can hold until later? Consider the two pieces of information from Julia in the scene above: (1) that someone else is to blame and (2)  Antarctica. MH900414074Well, Julia’s accusation is exactly that: an accusation. We don’t know if someone else is to blame for the break-up of their relationship – that is something that will be explored over the course of the story. Julia’s reference to it in this scene moves that element of the story on from the first scene and is the right reference in the right place. However, the Antarctica trip is clearly a pivotal plot point for Simon: either he has already been there and something has happened to make him want to end his marriage to Julia, or he has taken the posting for whatever reason and wants to deal with the marriage issue before he leaves. Either way, its existence has a direct bearing on what he wants (there we go with objectives again!) and the steps he takes to achieve his goals. Which is why the mention of it only in the second scene strikes a reader as an omission or exclusion.

So let’s see what happens when we add Antarctica to the opening paragraph of the scene in my previous Building Narrative Tension 1 post:

‘Do it, do it now!’ The small voice in his head urged Simon on as he made his way to the greenhouse. In three weeks’ time, he would be holed up in the frozen wastelands of Antarctica, and it would be too late. But Julia was alone at last, and he would tell her now. That it was over. Them. After twenty-five years, three children, five dogs and a grandchild. Yes, he would do it. He would tell her. She looked up at him as he reached the greenhouse door.

Much better, don’t you agree? Putting Simon under time pressure to have the ‘Big Talk’ gives this scene a far greater sense of urgency. It also provides an intriguing hook for the reader as we want to know more about his upcoming trip to the South Pole. In fact, even without Julia’s allegations in the following scene, we will probably still wonder about the someone or something Simon is running to or away from in Antarctica. And rather than being out of the loop, we readers are now fairly chomping at the bit to know more. Job done!

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Building Narrative Tension 1: The Tension Rises…dah, dah….doh??

The issue of readers’ expectations cropped up in my earlier post ‘The Ins and Outs of Writing Character’ in relation to keeping your protagonist in character rather than out of it.

MH900390992However, readers’ expectations also play an important part when it comes to structuring scenes to create tension in your novel.

As a general guideline, if you set up your reader to expect a certain development, event or revelation in a scene, you must deliver in some form or other, or risk incurring their (wholly righteous) anger and annoyance.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you have to tell the reader everything immediately. Revealing character secrets bit by bit is an essential part of building tension, and keeping your reader engaged. But one of the structural problems I come across as a substantive editor is what I call the ‘unfulfilled promise’ syndrome, which usually shows up when an author is trying to create tension by drawing out, say, a confrontation or the revelation of a secret over a number of scenes.

To illustrate my point, let’s bring in Simon and Julia from my earlier post in relation to Point of View shifts:

Simon made his way to the greenhouse. Julia was alone at last. He would tell her now. That it was over. Them. After twenty-five years, three children, five dogs and a grandchild. He would do it now, while she was alone. She looked up at him as he reached the greenhouse door.

‘There you are, darling. Almost finished here. I’ll be in shortly.’

BD09315_He gulped.

‘Julia? ‘

‘Yes?’

Simon decided he wouldn’t do it. Not yet. 

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

‘Oh, yes, please.’ 

As a reader, this encounter leaves me feeling dissatisfied and a little cheated. And asking some awkward questions. Why did Simon say he was going to tell Julia their relationship was over and then decide not tell her after all? What caused him to change his mind? And what exactly was the point of that scene?

So how do you build tension without giving everything away at once? The answer is the same way you keep your character ‘in character’: by managing your reader’s expectations, not simply walking away from them or changing the subject at the crucial moment.

Let’s look at our Simon and Julia scene once again. What we need to do is to make it clear to the reader why Simon doesn’t go through with his intention of telling Julia their marriage is over. So why doesn’t he? Remember objectives and obstacles in The Terrible Twos? What if Simon’s objective is to tell Julia of the break-up while she’s alone, but just as he is about to do so, someone else arrives:

 

‘Julia? ‘

‘Yes?’

AN00363_A loud bark from their excitable cocker spaniel and the sound of a small car pulling into the driveway alerted Simon to the fact that their two youngest daughters had returned from their shopping trip rather earlier than expected.

Now was not the time, after all.

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

Or perhaps the obstacle is internal: to do with the type of man Simon is. Perhaps he simply hasn’t the bottle to go through with it, or he shies away from conflict, or perhaps he still loves Julia deep down, and just can’t bring himself to do it.  You’re the author, it’s your character, you choose. But whatever you choose, please keep the reader in the loop.

‘Julia?’

‘Yes?’

MB900412716Simon hesitated. The thought of his wife’s distress at what he was about to say made him feel sick. No, he couldn’t do it. Not now. Not while she was alone, with no one to comfort her. He’d wait until their daughter, Poppy, arrived. Yes, that would be better. He’d wait until Poppy was here, then he’d do it. 

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

So by fulfilling the promise set up in the scene, you not only gain a wonderful opportunity to impart some great character information, you also keep your readers engaged and wondering what will happen next.

Of course, if you really want to make it interesting, you could try this:

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

For a moment Simon thought he saw a look of dark suspicion cross Julia’s face. But then she smiled sweetly at him. 

‘Oh, yes, please.’

Dah, dah, dah….

For Dickens’ sake, please don’t tell!

‘I am a mortal,” Scrooge remonstrated, “and liable to fall.’
‘Bear but a touch of my hand there,’ said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, ‘and you shall be upheld in more than this!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens 

It’s almost Christmas and, in the—ahem—spirit of the season, we are back with A Christmas Carol’s Ghost of Christmas Present, who is about to tell that old miser Scrooge what’s what.

‘Ho, ho, ho, Ebenezer Scrooge, sit yourself down there, and let’s talk about you. 05 Ghost of CPA lonely child, left behind at school when all the other boys went home for Christmas; one sister, Fanny, frail body, big heart; she died young; one child, your nephew. You were devastated. All that resentment and bitterness, dude—not good for the soul. Then you were in love with Belle, and she loved you. Oh, yes she did. But it didn’t last. You were too ambitious, too greedy; it became all about the money: you and Jacob Marley grubbing and scheming, until there was nothing left to you but each other and your false idol. And now look at you: wizened and miserable. Do you know what you need, Ebenezer? A change of heart! You need to start caring about other people again. People like Bob Cratchit and his poorly son, Tiny Tim, who’ll surely die if you don’t start caring. And then you’ll end up dead yourself and unmourned. Nobody will even miss you; well, not for longer than a moment (your nephew really is a decent sort, you know). In fact, there’ll be some doing happy dances at the thought. Doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it? So here’s the deal: repent and redeem yourself, or die and suffer like Jacob Marley, with a long chain trailing behind you for eternity. A bit of a no-brainer, don’t you think? Right, got that? So, we’re good? Pleasure doing redemption with you. Must dash, other places to go and people to see, and next door has mince pies! Ho, ho, ho…’

Not quite Dickens, is it? But it does raise a number of interesting questions. As a reader, the Ghost of Christmas Present’s charm, joie de vivre and his illuminating banter notwithstanding, would you expect the embittered, miserable, petty Ebenezer Scrooge as depicted in the first chapter of the book to repent, as the late, great Tommy Cooper would say, ‘just like that’? Would you believe Dickens if he tried to make you believe Scrooge would change so easily? I don’t think so. In fact, in those circumstances, I’d be inclined to believe Scrooge was correct when he surmised that the whole ghostly experience was likely the result of indigestion. No, all in all, I’d want a little more emotional and psychological incentive over and above the jolly warnings of a fat old ghost dressed like a Victorian Christmas tree.

01 Jacob MarleyWhich is exactly what Dickens gives his readers: he doesn’t tell us about Scrooge, he shows us using images, events and relationships to which both the reader and the character can relate. He carries us, just as the three ghosts carry Scrooge, on an emotional journey towards redemption, through the memories of his character’s past: the sad childhood, his devotion to his sister, his friends and first love—all possibilities in Scrooge’s youth for a different outcome—into the bitter-sweet present of the Cratchits and Tiny Tim, and the bleak future promised by a refusal to change.

A Christmas Carol demonstrates very clearly the difference between showing and telling. You get the same facts by telling, but you don’t get the emotional connection that showing can give you.

If you still don’t believe me, cast your eye over the Ghost of Christmas Present’s story once again. Who or what are we really focussing on when we read it: the Ghost of Christmas Present or the story he is telling us? Which of them is engaging us emotionally? Are we so busy being entertained by the ghost’s character and anachronistic style, that the story he is telling fails to move us enough to shed tears at the thought of Tiny Tim’s imminent demise?

The moral of this Christmas tale: watch out for those telltale signs of telling: chunks of back story, exposition and information dumps, and replace them instead with scintillating dialogue, thrilling action and warm fuzzy feelings.

And so to Dickens for the last word:

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’

Quotations and illustrations are from the 1843 first edition of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by John Leech.

Full copy available to download on http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm

Love at First Draft xxx

Congratulations to all those who took part in NaNoWriMo last month. I hope you are all basking in the delight of having the bones of your next first draft safely stored away!

MH900410653Ah, first drafts—the writing equivalent of love at first sight! A whirlwind romance, a lovers’ tiff and break-up, followed by a hot, sexy weekend together in Paris all rolled into one! In other words: ecstatic, chaotic, wonderful, infuriating,  heart-breaking and inspirational.

So to ease the process along, here are a few first draft ground rules:

  • Firstly, there are no rules! And even if there were rules, they were made to be broken. It’s your first draft, for goodness’ sake! All yours, just for you, for your eyes only! Enjoy it! Just get it down on paper or computer screen—you can sort it out later!
  • Accept and rejoice in the fact that it is in the nature of first drafts to contain some or all of the following:
    • Clichés
    • Typos
    • Coincidences
    • POV shifts
    • Unbelievable leaps out of character and back in again.
    • Extraneous characters you didn’t even know existed until you started writing.
    • Lots of other good and bad stuff.
  • Don’t be afraid to play around with your novel. Write scenes you know from the outset will never make it—write five versions of the same scene—even if you know all five are ‘wrong’. Ask yourself a lot of questions about the book: ‘what if’, ‘why’, then write down all the answers regardless of what they are. There is no right and wrong in writing—only what works and what doesn’t—but deciding which is which comes at a much later stage in process – that’s what editing is for.
  • Take active steps to shut off the editor in your head: if typing on the computer is encouraging you to edit, try writing with a pen and notebook for while. Try free writing – jotting down the first thing that comes into your head – just to get the creative juices flowing. Experiment a little, and find out what works best for you.

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  • Remember that you are unique: what works for someone else will not necessarily work for you—find your own process and inspiration. Equally, each book you write is unique: the process you used for your first book, may not work for your second. Don’t forget, you’ve progressed as a writer, and learned from the experience of book 1; book 2 will be different, so don’t give yourself a hard time when it is.
  • How to’ books, blogs and other people’s advice are not ‘rules’ you have to follow: they are possible ways which might work for you when you need to troubleshoot a particular issue that’s causing you problems when you come to review or edit your work. You’re not at that stage yet, so forget them for the moment.
  • Don’t show your work too early; make sure you and your first draft are strong enough together before you start showing it off.
  • And remember, it’s a first draft, so ignore all of the above and just write!

The Ins and Outs of Writing Character

‘Bob trembled, and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.’

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I raised the issue of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character in my earlier post ‘A Conspiracy of Coincidences’.  But what exactly does this mean?

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In everyday speech, we would usually describe somebody as being ‘out of character’ if they do something we don’t expect. But, I hear you say, the whole point of my novel is that my character doesn’t do what everyone expects. And what about character nuance and complexity? Surely, my hero is allowed to be contradictory, or change his mind without being considered ‘out of character’?

In fiction, as in real life, the key to being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character depends on other people’s expectations. So the key to keeping your character ‘in character’ is to manage your reader’s expectations. Your character can change his mind and be as contradictory as often as he likes to all the other characters in the story, as long as it is clear to the reader that this unpredictability and contradiction are part of his essential nature, and not something tacked on by the author to get him out of a rather too deep and awkwardly constrictive plot hole.

If your story turns on the fact that your character is going to face his demons and do something he has never done before, you need to prepare your readers in advance.

 Take Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, for example. His employer’s post-Ghost behaviour is so out of character for him that poor Bob Cratchit assumes the man has lost his wits entirely. So why are readers so willing to accept the curmudgeonly miser’s complete change of heart and personality?

MH900020689Because Dickens has set up the hope of redemption at a plot and character level from the start of the book: Jacob Marley’s ghost is a last chance warning to change before it is too late, and the Ghost of Christmas Past shows us a kinder, more innocent Ebenezer Scrooge just waiting to surface underneath all that miserly cynicism. Bob may not expect Scrooge’s redemption, but we readers do, and all is well.

So don’t wait until your hero has his back firmly against the inescapable wall of whatever jeopardy you have in store for him before he discovers his hidden depths of character and abilities. Your readers won’t thank you for pulling convenient and hitherto unknown character traits from nowhere like rabbits appearing from a magician’s hat, but they will appreciate a carefully structured pay-off for all their emotional investment in a character.

Book Nanny’s back – with a website!

Yes, Book Nanny is back! OK, I said that a few months ago and then disappeared again, but I’ll do better this time. Honest.

And my excuse for all this tardiness? Apart from the joy of working with some hugely talented writers, I’ve been busy, busy, busy setting up a new website.

And here it is: Book Nanny’s website.

 Ta dah!

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The Book Nanny website is packed with information about my editing and copy-writing services, and for answers to some of the most frequently asked editing questions, check out the site’s FAQs. I will also be posting details of upcoming Book Nanny workshops and events on the ‘Workshops’ page. Something for everyone, I hope.

You can subscribe to the website by email, but I will continue to blog on this site for the present also.

I hope you enjoy the Book Nanny website and please do let me know what you think!

Book Nanny Writing and Editing Services: nursing and nurturing for all your creative writing needs.

Character and Plot 2: The Terrible Twos

MH900279674Picture a toddler in the middle of the Terrible Twos: you tell them specifically not to do something, they either do it immediately or spend the next few hours determinedly trying to find a way around whatever obstacle or hindrance you’ve put in their way to prevent them from carrying out the forbidden task. The Germans have a word for it: ‘Trotzkind’, literally, ‘a defiance child’, with all the connotations of defiance for defiance’s sake. And what Trotzkinder and Terrible Twos toddlers have that your characters need is that overwhelming sense of purpose and desire to achieve a set objective, ‘trotzt’ or despite the odds.

Last week, I introduced the idea of actors using objectives to analyse plays for performance. How does this actually work? Well, let’s start simple: take an empty stage with a chair on it. Character A enters. Her objective is to sit on a chair. There is only one chair, so she sits. So far so good: not particularly dramatic, but at least the action is clear and the audience is now focussed on the character and the chair and is waiting for the next event.

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Enter Character B. Her objective is also to sit on a chair. But wait—the chair is occupied—Character A is still sitting on it! Now the audience are watching with interest. How will Character B react? What will she do? What about Character A? How will she react?  And the key question for the audience: what will happen next? Without any long character explanations or convoluted plot twists and frenetic action, we’ve already set up an intriguing dramatic scenario.

Of course, both characters don’t have to have the same objective, as long as some conflict of purpose between them remains. Character A’s objective may well be to be the only person seated on stage—so what does she do when Character B decides to achieve her objective by going off to find another chair?

A character’s objective can change within a scene as they react to another characters’ actions.

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For example, in the above scenario, Character A might decide that the only way of preventing Character B bringing on another chair is to block up the entrances to the stage. In that case, blocking up the entrances becomes her new unit objective (her new purpose), but the overall super-objective of being the only person seated on stage remains and dictates all her further actions and reactions.

This is the great thing about using objectives—they act as a vital point of reference to link all the action and dialogue for a character and prevent a scene, an act or, indeed, even a whole novel going merrily off on a tangent. Because if it threatens to go AWOL on you, just play the objective and bring it back. Remember the Trotzkind: what is my purpose? Why am I here and what am I trying to do?

Character and Plot 1: It’s my emotional arc and I’ll cry if I want to!

MH900016705Why am I here and what am I trying to do? Two of the most important questions every actor has to ask themselves about the character they are playing, regardless of whether their character’s raison d’etre is as mundane as delivering a tea tray to the posh folks in the drawing room or as sublime as soliloquising on the meaning of life, the universe and why their mother married their uncle.

Let’s be honest, a lack of purpose is distracting for an audience: they should be concentrating on the play itself, not wondering why a particular character appears to be meandering aimlessly about the stage with all the air of an indecisive rabbit caught in headlights or stuck in the middle of a scene as though surplus to requirements. So answering those two questions is an important part of an actor’s job and actor training (via Stanislavsky) has come up with various methods to help them do so.

So what has all this got to do with emotional arcs? Apart, of course, from the fact that the same rules apply to characters in a novel or short story as to those in a play or film. Well, let’s look at the whole concept of emotional arcs to start with.

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First up, what is an emotional arc? Essentially it can be defined as the emotional journey a character goes on throughout the course of a story: the growth, changes, denials and acceptances of the events and incidents they experience along the way and the emotional choices they make. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a character absolutely has to change by the end of a book—their tragedy might well be that for whatever reason(s) they choose not to grasp the opportunities for change offered to them, but from a reader’s perspective, watching them make those choices is where the emotional heart of a story lies. And to truly engage a reader, a story needs an emotional heart.

Here’s the traditional way of illustrating an emotional arc—a sort of character rainbow graph:

Emotional Arc 1

However, I like to think of it as more an emotional barometer than a graph. Don’t think of it in terms of the character feeling happy, sad, pleased or vexed—think instead of the emotional pressure being applied to a character at any given time in the story. At the height of the story, the emotional pressure should be at its most intense. And what gives us this increase in intensity as the plot develops is dealing with a character’s wants and yearnings—what Robert Olen Butler in his wonderful book about writing fiction, From Where You Dream (with Janet Burroway), calls ‘the dynamics of desire’. Because the character’s yearnings, wants and desires are the driving force behind the events in the book, the momentum that will push the story forwards to its conclusion.

Which is where we return to acting. One of the ways in which an actor approaches a script for rehearsals is to break it down into ‘objectives’: ‘super-objectives’ for larger sections of the play such as Acts, or indeed the whole play itself, and ‘units’ for smaller scenes or moments of action.

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By giving a character a want, goal or aim for every single moment and playing the sense of purpose generated by each objective, an actor can bring an energy and dynamism to performance which hooks an audience from the start and keeps them engaged throughout the play.

And what author wouldn’t want the same for his or her readers? So next time, I’ll look at how using objectives can help writers develop their characters and the useful knock-on effect on plot and structure.

Murder at Cliché Manor 2: Revenge of the Stereotypes

MB900336055DI Findlater turned to the attractive blonde lolling seductively in the doorway, whose ample chest threatened at any time to burst out of the impeccably tailored, tiny-waisted, blood-red designer jacket stretched to full capacity across it. 

‘Parker, don’t just stand there. Go do something useful.’

DC Denis Parker flashed a sultry look in Findlater’s direction before disappearing into the hallway with a smoky-voiced ‘Right you are then, Sir.’

Sergeant Webster glared after him.  Someone needs to explain the meaning of the word ‘plain’ to that guy,’ he growled, ‘as in plain-clothes detective.’

Maybe the maxim that there are only seven or eight plots in fiction, and everything else is simply a variation on a theme, is true. Likewise, there is a good reason that many of the clichés and stereotypes in genre fiction are so prevalent: they work well. Comedy often works by turning a stereotype or cliché on its head, whereas drama needs conflict. So enter the maverick loner detective with a drinking problem, a bad attitude to authority and a broken marriage. Yes, it’s a cliché, but with built-in conflict from the get-go!

However, accepting the limitations of a genre doesn’t mean a writer can sit back and lounge on their clichéd laurels. Colin Dexter’s detective Morse and Val McDermid’s psychiatrist, Tony Hill, are both loner mavericks, but there is a world of difference and individuality between them. MH900300275Equally, there are considerable differences between, say, Patricia Cornwell’s pathologist, Kay Scarpetta and Kathy Reichs’s forensic anthropologist, Temperance Brennan.  In each case, the author has given their creation a unique background, setting and voice. The same holds true even when working within the confines of historical events or characters. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are wonderful examples of how an author can use a unique point of view and style to turn a stereotypical Tudor bad guy into a fascinating portrayal of an intelligent and complex man.

The key to avoiding clichés is to make clear choices for your character. What interests you about them? What makes them unique and individual in your view, even if the situation they are in, historical or otherwise, is a seemingly stereotypical one? What is it about their behaviour, their decisions and choices that differentiates them from all the other people in the same situation? Once you’ve decided what it is – that’s the angle to explore in your writing.

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The same holds true for linguistic clichés and phrases. Where it is clear that your use of a particular cliché or phrase is intentional and a character choice, a reader is less likely to have a problem with it. You can also get away with more in dialogue because people often use clichés in everyday speech, but, please, always in moderation: you don’t want to over-spice the stew. However, be very wary of randomly sprinkled clichés and well-worn phrases in the actual body of the narrative: you can almost certainly be guaranteed that that’s where they will come across as lazy or unimaginative.

Murder at Cliché Manor

MB900336055It was a dark and stormy night, and the victim lay sprawled across the library floor like a worn-out phrase. DI Findlater cut an impressive figure: tall, dark and handsome, his aristocratic features silhouetted in the flickering of the gas lamp above his head.  

So, what have we got then, Sergeant?’ he shouted, trying to make himself heard over the whistling wind and rattling windowpanes.

Sergeant Webster pulled a dog-eared notebook out of his shabby coat pocket and grumbled loudly. He was like a bear with a sore head ever since his wife had left him due to his workaholic nature and heavy drinking. And he was not happy to be back in the crumbling old mansion. 

‘It’s the same all over again, Guv,’ he replied. ‘Just like last week’s case: Totally Unimaginative. Only this time, the deceased’s name is Overused. Completely Overused.’  

How do you like the opening section of my new opus? Great, innit? It’s clear, with gothic ambiance and lots of information about the main characters from the offset. So why is everyone sniggering? What do you mean, it’s full of clichés? Of course it is. That’s the whole point.

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Or, as Sherlock Holmes might say in one of his more flippant moments, ‘I rest my case.’

As you can see from the above, clichés work on two levels – in the choice of language and in the creative choices such as character, setting and plot.

The problem with linguistic clichés is that they are victims of their own success. They are pithy and precise, leaving no room for ambiguity: perfect shorthand to get meaning across quickly and clearly, which is why they are so useful in everyday speech. The downside is that they are completely unoriginal. And therein, as Hamlet would say, lies the rub. Clarity is vital for communication, but most readers (and writers) are looking for a little more.

Clichés and stereotypes such as the maverick cop, the tall, dark, handsome stranger, the mysterious gothic mansion  and the flashy Manhattan penthouse, turn up regularly in fiction and film and, as with their linguistic cousins, it is usually a case of ‘familiarity breeding contempt’.

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The worst effect of the cliché is that it deadens originality and spoils a writer’s unique voice. Everything you write should be uniquely yours – readers will clamour time and time again for your maverick cop as long as she or he doesn’t sound and look the same as fifty others. So, use clichés and genre tropes sparingly, if at all. Don’t allow your prose become boring and unimaginative. Give your characters an original voice and keep your readers hooked.