Monday, May 04, 2009

Seven Deadly Writer's Sins: #2

or "Haven't I Heard That Somewhere Before?"

When I was in college, one of my English professors had a sign in his office that read: Avoid Cliches Like the Plague. It always made me laugh.

Now, I'm not suggesting that cliches per se are deadly to one's writing. I don't even try to weed them out in my first drafts (which, incidentally, explains why I let so many slip by in blog posts). I use them as glorified place holders: weak similes that while away the time until the pithier, meatier metaphors arrive.

No, cliches are merely indicators of weakness or laziness. They are rarely deadly.

Cliched dialogue, on the other hand, is another story. Few things will kill your readers' interest faster than throwing something common at them and asking them to pretend they've never read or heard anything like it before.

Overly Cliched Dialogue (OCD) can appear anywhere. How to recognize it when you see it? Easy: it's the dialogue that exists NOWHERE in the real world. It is cliched because it only occurs on screen or on the printed page. And it occurs there often. Some of the most common include:

* I'm your brother (sister/father/mother/blood relative)...

This is common OCD. If one character is actually imparting news to another, it's a cheap way to ratchet up the drama before the obligatory scene where the newly discovered relations are forced to part.

Sometimes this line is an even worse offender. It is said to a person who is completely cognizant of the familial relationship. It exists only to tell the audience information that everyone else in the story knows. Really -- how often does one say, "I'm your brother and I need your help?" Never. Only in Hollywood...

* What the--?

Only in PG and PG-13-land do people say this. In the real world, people tend to finish this particular sentiment.

* I'm cold. I'm so cold.

This OCD always makes me laugh. It's the obligatory line that a dying character says to his or her beloved. It's like: "Time is short. I'm about to die. Let me give you a final internal temperature reading."

* Not on my watch!

My friend Karen can spot this one coming with unerring accuracy. She has been known to add it as an audible aside during movies for instant comic relief. Variations include She's gonna blow! and Let's get out of here! Personal guarantee: if the situation arises where something is about to blow sky high and we must immediately vacate the premises, I'm going to just start running, instead of providing exposition for someone who may or may not be watching.

* Who else knows about this?

With the proliferation of this line of OCD, you would think that even the characters in books and movies would know that the correct answer is NOT "No one."

* What place is this?

An odd example of OCD that is completely out of place in the real world. "Where am I?" is another one, but at least it rings half true.

There are many, many other examples, but you get the point. Even movies and books that I like suffer from the malady of OCD. Wolverine, for instance, has "I'm your father," "I'm your brother," AND "I'm cold... I'm so cold." Yeesh!

Stories and scripts that suffer from OCD bump the audience out of the experience. They remind the readers or viewers that this is, after all, just a stupid book / movie / TV show... and they could be doing something better with their time. Excessive OCD makes the audience start trying to guess the lines before they come. When the audience is successful, then the characters have become ::gasp!:: predictable. And that IS a sin.

In Other News

The major two-year-long project for the USHJA is finished! It went out without a hiccup, and -- dare I hope? -- it appears that all is well. I expect to hear more from the client as the week progresses. But, for the most part, that project is done.

The rest of the month is dedicated to finishing up the first draft and first edit of Ryan Gingerich's book. I'm on track to make that deadline. We'll see how things pan out.

When I'm not working on Ryan's project, my new novel idea is occupying all of my free time. It keeps me up until far too early in the morning, and could easily become a wonderful obsession. Much of the project is in the research phase of it. Robert helps with that, too. But what I have begun I really like. It promises hours of fun for the summer...

And I'm gearing up for a Writer's Workshop I'll be conducting at the Coloma Library on Tuesdays in June. I love teaching writers, and am revamping the workshop so it's more hands-on and interactive. Further bulletins on that as events warrant.

And now, Ryan's book calls. I have a chapter near completion, and hope to finish it and get a solid start on another one today.

So... I'm off to write like the wind and avoid cliches like... you know.

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