Eliminating cliches through careful observation

I previously posted a version of this piece on a defunct blog of mine, so I’m sharing it here.

Cliches often result from a lack of attention or from indifference. They’re readymade and easy to grab at as you write.

While they save you effort or time, they cost you in other ways. If you use too many cliches, your writing becomes less memorable. Your voice seems more dull, your thoughts less worthy of attention and distinction.

One of the ways to limit cliches in your writing is to carefully pay attention to the world. Specific details and concrete examples can deepen your writing. Observations of texture, shape, and color can enrich the text and give it more flavor.

As an example, let’s consider Sightlines, a collection of essays by Kathleen Jamie. Her book inspired this post, because of how present she is in the world of each essay. From “The Gannetry,” on a colony of gannets in Scotland:

The cliffs were south-facing, full in the sun, and five hundred foot high. They formed promontories and bowls, so we walked out onto the broadest promontory and from there looked back into the cauldron the birds had commandeered for themselves.

And from “Moon,” an observation of an eclipse:

The moon does us a great service, metaphorically and literally, and this is part of it – occasionally she allows us to appreciate the shadow cast by our own planet. She shows us that the earth, for all the cacophony of life on its surface, is firstly an object, bigger than we are, magisterial enough to cast a shadow thousands and thousands of miles into space.

In this piece, she describes the moon ripening like fruit, even as the Earth becomes more strikingly rock-like. Although people have compared the moon to food before, she constructs the imagery with delicacy and care, and in a way that’s unique to her. She doesn’t make a lazy comparison. It’s borne of observation and imagination.

Before describing people as having nerves of steel or being weak as a kitten, study them. Reflect on who they are in a specific moment. Do you want to say something about emotions or economics or how beautiful your backyard looks at dawn? Don’t lean too hard on the readymade phrases. What are you really trying to say?

Reading good writing reminds you to observe the world more carefully. So does being present in the moment as you write or edit your work. Think about what you’re trying to write and how to write it precisely and memorably.

TV Writers Coming Up With Ideas for a New Show

Three TV writers (known from here on out as T1, T2, and T3) get together to brainstorm ideas for a new crime show.

T1: Ok, we want a show with some originality, but not too much. It needs to appeal to a lot of people. We want to give them something new but not too strange.

T2: How about we make the two leads a man and a woman? They don’t have to sleep with each other right at the start. We can wait a few episodes.

T3: Or maybe a few seasons. Ratchet up the sexual tension for years. Throw in all kinds of drama to keep them apart.

T2: To really keep them apart, we need to make sure they act out of character. They need to sometimes act much dumber than they are for reasons that don’t make sense.

T1: How about they never sleep together. They’ll be played by attractive actors who have a lot of sexual chemistry, but they’ll never have sex, ever.

T3: Because one of them is married?

T1: No. Because male-female friendship can be one of the things that makes our show fresh. The idea that men and women can be friends.

T2: In that case, let’s also have them be different races.

T3: Yes! Diversity cred.

T2: Though, whatever the woman is, we should make the man white.

T1: Yes! He’ll be an arrogant know-it-all who’s really smart and has a good heart, deep down.

T3: And if any of the fans want to see them have sex… that’s what fan fiction is for.

T1: The woman has to be smart but not unattractively nerdy, and assertive but not too pushy, and independent but also really self-sacrificing, and gorgeous but sometimes she eats hotdogs and her hair is a little messy.

T2: If we ever show her sleeping, she’ll need to have a full face of makeup, even in the middle of the night.

T1: Of course.

T3: She has to be like a mother to the male character. Like, she keeps reminding him to eat his vegetables and be nicer to people. She shouldn’t really have a sense of humor. Just a lot of fond and exasperated eye rolling at his shenanigans.

T2: Ok, but if they aren’t going to sleep with each other, who will they sleep with?

T1: The man will have some tragic ex-lover or ex-wife who died or betrayed him or something. The ex will be blonde.

T2: And fair-skinned.

T3: And if he gets together with anyone else on the show…?

T2: Also blonde and fair-skinned.

T3: Right, and she’ll be different from his ex in important ways. Like the fact that she’s alive and not evil.

T1: What about the female lead? She sleeping with anyone?

T3: Maybe she can have a sexual hangup. One that makes her super cranky. Sound good?

T2: Who cares. I’m getting kind of bored thinking about her.

T3: She’s an important part of the show. We need to give her stuff to do.

T1: She’ll be doing a lot. She’s supposed to be smart and tough. We’ll also put her through some traumatic moments.

T2: Trauma can get boring if it drags out too much.

T1: Don’t worry, we won’t follow up on the trauma. Something terrible will happen to her, she’ll have a nightmare or two, and then, you know, she’ll be ok again two episodes later.

T3: We need to make her complex. She needs to be as interesting as the male lead.

T1: That’s what fan fiction is for. Some of the fans get cranky. They say the characters are underdeveloped, the ethical issues are unexplored, the plots are underbaked. So they write their own versions of the story or fill in missing scenes.

T3: Oh, I know! The female lead is kind of a tomboy. But she also wears stiletto heels everywhere, and her hair is always long and lustrous.

T2: There you go. See? It isn’t hard to make her complex.