THE RULES AND HOW TO BREAK THEM: PART IV by Miko Johnston

PART IV:  Avoid clichés like the plague.

In the final installment of this series, we’ll look at clichés, often considered a hallmark of drivel by readers, critics and writers. But are there times when they can work to a writer’s advantage?

Clichés may be overused phrases, but that doesn’t take away from their truthfulness. Old habits do die hard, divide and conquer works, and we’ve all had fair weather friends. Since we instinctively understand them, clichés tell us a great deal in shorthand when used thoughtfully.

In my novel, A Petal in the Wind Book II, one character says early on, “I’m an awful flirt and thoroughly incorrigible,” a deliberate use of a cliché. Does that make you think this character lacks imagination or conforms to whatever prevails? Then I’ve accomplished my goal. I’ll note that he is secondary to the story, not one of the stars. He’s also a minor adversary and the butt of humorous misfortunes; a jester in my court of characters. And since it was said ‘aloud’ as part of his dialog, it sounds more natural. People use the occasional cliché when speaking. Some, like my character, rely on them because they’re not effective communicators, and that’s the point. It’s not always about what someone says as how they say it.

If you choose to include a cliché in your story, use it to reveal character as well as make a point. Limit it to dialog, preferably of a minor character, and only when it won’t taint the drama or emotion of the moment.

 

Before I end this series, here’s a ‘bonus’ rule, a tricky one: Read your work aloud.

Hearing your words does help improve clarity and flow. It also catches repetition and awkward phrasing. The only problem is if you’re doing the reading, you know your work well, perhaps too well. You emphasize the right word in a sentence, or you read something that isn’t there but should be – ever catch an error on a fifth proofreading?

My computer has a dictation system. “Vicki’s” dull monotone doesn’t dramatize the reading, so I can hear if my words fall flat. Other than stumbling over some ethnic terms, “she” provides a helpful service. Reading your own words works best when the writing is fresh. Otherwise, if your computer doesn’t have a dictation system, ask someone else to read it back to you.

 

Rules should serve to guide, not impede, us. Too often writers slavishly follow the rules, while others ignore them without understanding their purpose, which leads to bad writing that reinforces the importance of do’s and don’ts. So how does a writer know when to follow the rules and when to break them? If you’re unsure, then think – what will serve the story best? Improve the pacing, define a character, or set up a situation later in the story? When in doubt, remember this: readability supersedes rules.

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