1. Morning-routine cliché
Clichés come in all shapes and sizes. There are just as many clichéd scenes as phrases and words.
For instance, how may times have you seen a book begin with a main character being “rudely awakened” from a “sound sleep” by a “clanging” alarm clock? Have you written an opening like this yourself? Wondering where to start, you opt for first thing in the morning. Speaking of clichés, been there, done that. We all have. Don’t ever do it again.
Compounding that cliché is having the “bleary-eyed” character drag himself from his bed, squinting against the intruding sunlight. And compounding that is telling the reader everything the character sees in the room. What comes next? He’ll pass by or stand before a full-length mirror, and we’ll get the full rundown of what the poor guy looks like.
Are you cringing? I’ve done the same kind of clichéd scene. Resolve to leave that whole morning-routine cliché to the millions of writers who’ll follow in your footsteps.
I know you want me to suggest alternatives to those hackneyed constructs, but inventing fresh ways to start a story and describe a character is your job. If an early-morning routine is endemic to your plot—say your character is wound tight and sleepless because of a crucial morning meeting—put him on the commuter train with an unsupervised child darting about. He doesn’t know what she’s doing amidst all the business people, with their noses stuck in newspapers or laptop screens, but she points at him and says, “Don’t you comb your hair?”
Mortal dread. Is it possible that, in his hurry to catch the last train that would get him to his job interview on time, our hero actually skipped a step in his personal routine? Now he has to find his reflection in the train window or the aluminum back of the seat in front of him. And then what does he do?
2. Answering-the-phone cliché
Another deadly cliché is how people answer the phone. This happens even in the movies or on stage. Be aware of yourself the next time your phone rings. It’s such a common occurrence that we don’t even think about it. But one thing you likely do not do is look up, startled. You don’t turn and look at the phone. You know where it is; it’s been there for years, and you’ve heard it ring before. You simply rise and go answer it.
If your character gets a phone call, resist the urge to have her look up, startled, then rise, cross the room, pick up the receiver and say, “Hello?”
“This is Jill.”
“Hi, Jill. What’s up?”
(Or if you’re a mystery writer): “Hi, Jill. Is anything wrong?”
3. The clutter of detail
Here is another problematic phone scene, from an unpublished manuscript:
The tinny ring echoed through the dark house. The shiny white receiver waited on the stone countertop. Another outburst. Chester, handsome, dark-haired, and taller than normal, craned his neck to look at the ringing reminder of his loneliness. After the phone’s third cry for attention, Chester stood up and strode purposefully toward the kitchen. His long legs were encased in brown corduroys, which swished in the silence as he moved toward the phone. Ring four. He knew the machine would click on if he didn’t move quickly. He plucked the receiver delicately from the cradle with his bronzed hand and said in warm, resonant tones, “Hello. Chester here.”
“Hi, Chester. It’s Mary.”
You get the idea. Here’s my version:
Late that night, Mary phoned.
Give your readers credit. If you tell them Mary phoned Chester, they can assume he heard the ring, stood, moved to the phone, picked it up and introduced himself. You’d be amazed at how many manuscripts are cluttered with such details.
Even in a period piece where the baking of a cake from scratch is an engrossing trip down memory lane, the good writer gives readers credit for thinking. While she may outline all the steps the heroine goes through to make the cake, she’ll avoid having her rise and stride to the kitchen or even pull open the oven door—unless there’s something about that oven door novel enough to include. If the character has to use a towel to lift the iron lid, fine. But if she does that, we know she had to stand and walk first.
4. Skip the recitals of ordinary life
We all get dressed, walk out to the car, open the door, slide in, turn the key and back out of the driveway. If your character backs into the garbage truck, that’s a story. Just say it:
That morning, as Bill backed out of the driveway, his mind was on the tongue-lashing he had endured the day before from his boss. Only when he heard the ugly crunch and scrape and his head snapped back did he realize he had not bothered to check his rearview mirror. He had plowed into a garbage truck that looked half as big as his house.
5. Don’t spell it out
One of the clichés of conversation is feeling the need to explain more than once what’s going on as if the reader can’t figure it out on his own. I actually read a novel in which, when a character said something quirky like “promptly, punctually and prissily” (which was actually funny and fit the personality), the author felt the need to add, “he said alliteratively.”
Other writers have a character respond to a diatribe from another with “Yep,” or “Nope,” or a shrug. Perfect. I love to learn about personalities this way. The character is a man of few words. But too often, the author intrudes, adding, “he said, eschewing small talk.”
If you create a character who backs into a conversation with tentative phrases like, “Oh, I was just wondering,” or, “I don’t know how to say this, but if I, well, let me say it this way,” we get it. We understand this is a timid, nervous person, afraid of saying something wrong, sensitive to others’ feelings. Avoid the temptation to explain. Don’t follow that with, “she began nervously, unsure how to broach the subject.”
Maybe the responder to that speaker says, “Is there a question in there somewhere? What are you saying?” That tells us all we need to know. You don’t have to explain with, “the insensitive jerk said.”
6. Pass on the preachiness
If your whole reason for writing is to pontificate on, for example, the dangers of certain habits or lifestyles, you risk sounding preachy. I see this problem in many manuscripts: all talk, straw men, plots contrived to prove a point but little that grabs and subtly persuades the reader. If your theme is the danger of alcoholism, simply tell a story in which an alcoholic suffers because of his bad decisions and give the reader credit. If your story is powerful enough, your theme will come through.
As you might imagine, preachiness is the bane of too much writing today (especially in the inspirational market). We’re trying to make the same kinds of points, naturally, that preachers do. But preachers are supposed to preach. It’s what they do. No one complains that his preacher is too preachy. That would be like saying a ballerina is too dancey.
For some reason, however, preachiness on paper offends the reader’s sensibilities. If you’re like me, you like to be given some credit as a reader and thinker. Even as a child, when I heard the story of the boy who cried wolf, I got it. I didn’t need someone saying, “So you see, Jerry, if you lie often enough, no one will take you seriously when you’re telling the truth.” That’s the beauty of morality tales; they make their own points.
Preachiness doesn’t need to be as obvious as stopping the story to say, “And so, dear reader, as you travel down life’s highway, remember… .” Sometimes obvious point-making comes when the writer of a first-person piece tries to shift gears without engaging the clutch and writes, “That was the day I learned that if that little girl could be so brave in the face of that kind of danger, I could certainly face the uncertainty of… .”
A rule of thumb? The Golden Rule. Put yourself in the skin of your reader. Read your piece to yourself and imagine how you’d feel at the end of it. Does the story or nonfiction article make its own point? Has the writer (in this case, you) added a sermonette to the end? When in doubt, cut it out.
7. Setting the scene
Because of the proliferation of all sorts of visual media these days, it’s more important than ever that novelists write with the eye in mind. Fortunately, just as in the days of radio, what can be produced in the theater of the mind (in our case, the reader’s mind) is infinitely more creative than what a filmmaker can put on the screen.
Be visual in your approach. People buy tickets to the movies or subscribe to cable channels hoping to see something they’ve never seen before. A good novel can provide the same, only—because of the theater of the mind—millions of readers can see your story a million different ways.
Although I’m encouraging you to be visual, I eschew too much description. I loved it when great potboiler writer John D. MacDonald described a character simply as “knuckly.” A purist might have demanded hair length and color; eye size, shape and color; height; weight; build; gait. Not me. “Knuckly” gave me all I needed to picture the man. And if I saw him thinner, taller, older than you did, so much the better. MacDonald offered a suggestion that allowed his readers to populate their own scenes.
I recall an editor asking me to expound on my “oily geek” computer techie in one of my books in the Left Behind series. I argued: (1) he was an orbital character, and while I didn’t want him to be a cliché from central casting, neither did I feel the need to give him more characteristics than he deserved; and (2) he was there to serve a purpose, not to take over the scene, and certainly not to take over the book.
The editor countered, “But the reader will want to see him, and you haven’t told us enough. Like, I see him in his 20s, plump, pale, with longish, greasy hair and thick glasses.”
What could I say? “Eureka! You just proved my point! All I wrote was that he was an oily geek, and look what you brought to the table.” Every reader has his own personal vision of a computer techie, so why not let each mental creation have its 15 seconds of fame on the theater screen of the mind?
In real life, I love coincidences. I’m fascinated by them. In fiction, more than once in each novel is too many, and even the one has to be handled well. (In comedies, sure, coincidences are fun and expected. How many times in “Seinfeld” do the characters run into the same people they tangled with early in the story?)
Say you invent a yarn about two people who marry, come to hate each other and get divorced. Years pass, and each fails at yet another marriage. Available again, they run into each other thousands of miles from home at a bazaar in Turkey. Bizarre is more like it. People won’t buy it. If the couple reconnected at their high school reunion, that would be plausible, or if they both chickened out of that event at the same time and ran into each other at a fast food place nearby, that would be an interesting, more believable coincidence.
So you see, dear reader…oops. OK, I’m going to give you some credit for getting the point.