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Friday, 17 August 2012

Avoid cliches like the plague

Cliches - everyone says to avoid them. So much so that it's kind of become a cliche itself. For example, I read an article on the web the other day talking about how to be an effective manager; one of its suggestions was to surround yourself with talented people, which the author admitted was something of a cliche, but noted that it's a cliche because it's true.

That got me thinking about why exactly cliches are bad, and the answer I've come to is that they let you turn off your brain while writing.

I think the best explanation for this is George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language. In this essay, Orwell sets out a number of rules for avoiding bad or lazy writing, the first of which is, "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print."

This is particularly important in fiction writing, and even more important in writing genre fiction, where the narrative can sometimes become so stylized that it's easy to resort to cliches to transmit your ideas. For instance, it's almost de rigueur  in fantasy for the protagonist to be a kitchen boy or a farm boy, or someone generally unassuming who is eventually revealed to be the heir to an ancient throne and the only one who can wield the magic sword.

These cliches are so deeply embedded in our thinking that even Tolkien felt the need to subvert certain of them in the Lord of the Rings - which is ironic, considering how many conventions of the fantasy genre he gave rise to. On the other hand, some authors make great efforts to avoid cliches, but even this avoidance can quickly become a cliche itself.

But to get back to the real meaning of Orwell's first rule, it's worth emphasizing that he's talking about cliches in prose, rather than narrative. Think of a sunset - specifically, think of all the descriptions of sunsets you've read in books and short stories over the years. It could be "dawn's rosy fingers" or a "fiery disc dipping below the horizon" or anything like that. But after the first time somebody wrote those down, every writer who used those was essentially writing in shorthand, rather than finding their own expressions.

Two authors that do a good job, in my opinion, of writing innovative prose, are Bill Bryson and Daniel Abraham. In his first travel book, The Lost Continent, Bryson describes driving down a country road and seeing a pickup in the distance being chased by a cloud of dust; it might not be F Scott Fitzgerald, but I remember reading it a couple of years ago and being struck by the vividness of the image.

I have a similar example for Daniel Abraham, from Darker Angels, which he wrote under the name MLN Hanover - one of the characters is described as sucking his drink through his teeth, which evoked the character's state of mind (ie, he was really pissed off and trying not to show it). Abraham could have said something like, "He drained his beer with an angry look on his face" but that lacks energy - and anybody could have come up with it.

So there are some of the benefits of keeping cliches in your prose to a minimum: a description that belongs to you shows up more vividly than one the readers seen millions of times before; or it can help you express more than what the words on the page mean on their own. And more importantly, it makes the language yours. And all you need to do is keep your own brain engaged - because that'll keep your readers interested too.