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February 24th, 2007, 03:45 AM
This is branching off from the story cliches.

I recently came across the sentence that is the title.

It sparked a few thoughts in my head.

Can descriptions be cliche? Can the choice of words be seen as such?

Can they make a work flat and uninteresting? Can the lack of flowery, ornate, long descriptions bring confusion to the reader, i.e. not giving them a firm base of where the story is?

Have we now watch out for such, not use the words and phrases that seem to fit both the work and the theme?

We are warned time and again about info dumps and waffling, yet when you cut to the bone you get the opposite comments. Good? Bad? I haven't got a clue.

What is worrying me does no one suspend belief when they read and take what the writer says as true for that story? Do folks always look for things that are not there, wanting more, not satisfied?

How can words become cliches??

It is something I didn't think I did, nor understand that anything I wrote would be looked at in such a manner. Now I am totally confused.

More's the point is it so important that you do or don't include and cliche descriptions, what ever they are.

Hereford Eye
February 24th, 2007, 10:44 AM
According to one reviewer, I have some experience with cliches, so:
Hemingway hated adjectives and rarely used them yet he could describe scenes pretty faithfully, enough so that people followed where he was going and paid to do so.
William Carlos Williams, a poet, took a page from Hemingway and limited his use of adjectives yet his poetry has held up for a half century.
My The Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers has over 2000 popular cliches and less than 1% are adjectival but all are descriptive. Babe in the Woods, Flesh and Blood, Poker Face are in the book but still throughly utile, as are most included. That's why the book was published, to let people know where they come from.
Hell, Diana Wynne Jones has a book playing with most of the fantasy cliches available for use. Her The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land pretty thoroughly slices and dices fantasy tropes yet we're still writing stories about them.
If the wording tells your story, it doesn't matter how many times it's been used although even I would not begin a story "It was a dark and stormy night...." Evidently, there can be strings of words which currently grind on editor's nerves. However, like with health care, if we wait five years, the truths that every knows today will be supplanted, negated, and reversed. It's all a matter of timing - which, of course, is a cliche. So, I am thinking of a story that begins "We all live in a yellow submarine...."

February 24th, 2007, 11:44 AM
And if a cliche is used correctly it can make the story so much better. I've read, as almost everybody here has, plenty of cliches and a few of them have given me tolkienshivers.

February 24th, 2007, 04:37 PM
Oh Hemingway did too use adjectives. And adverbs. And lots of exposition. And the occasional cliche, including some of his characters. And for fantasy writers to be advised not to use blocks of expository information is just silly, in my view.

Feedback is fodder, not commandments. You cannot be jumping up and down everytime somebody says something. Especially when they are parroting -- incorrectly -- what they think they've learned from someone else. If you sat the person down and said, show me which descriptions are specifically cliches, they would very likely only show you a few, and those they did point out may be cliches or may not be.

And if some of them are, it may be completely irrelevant. A cliche is a way of communicating information very quickly. So if you are told you are using cliches, then they have to be identified. Once identified, you will have to determine if they really are cliches. If cliches, you will then have to decide if it's working for you or not. You can't just squwack, "Oh no, I have cliches!" You're an author. You have to assess and decide.

I can tell you that in the material of yours that I have read Holbrook, I have not seen cliches burgeoning from your descriptions at all. Perhaps you could give us some examples. Of course, if the comment came from an agent or editor, you seldom get any concrete examples to go along with it.

February 25th, 2007, 09:47 AM
It was part of a critique I had, though the gent loved my dialogue. I can see a bit of what he is saying, but it am confused as the word I used were not as far as I was concerned cliches *shrugs shoulders* I am a bit dense at times lol.... I can't access the site where the critique is as it is down at present. In fact I have recently stopped the yahoo group of this site as I found a lot of the posts coming through the feeds down right confusing and just people pounding out the old semi myths, which talking to folk in the business, like you Kat, are not "truths".

I should trust my gut more lol...

Though I feel it is an interesting idea; the fact of over using certain types of words, when does that become acliche or just a manner of expression.

HE, how about that yellow sub, then... ;)

Hereford Eye
February 25th, 2007, 02:17 PM
HE, how about that yellow sub, then...

February 25th, 2007, 02:37 PM
Oh, I see. He doesn't like the body language. Yes, it does get difficult. How do you come up with a new description for winking, say, or somebody tilting their head or raising their eyebrows. These are things that people do, and which sometimes we want as authors to describe because it helps bring these characters into visual focus, or helps with the interior interaction between characters -- their chemistry. It also helps balance dialogue, can be essential for plot development, etc. Even in a screenplay, you have these sort of stage directions -- he quirks his lips in a slight smile, and so on. It's a kind of framing device.

Sometimes, we're just going to say, he winked or he shrugged his shoulders. We're not going to use an elaborate metaphor or try to come up with a twisty alternative vocabulary, like he closed his ocular lid briefly. Sometimes the chair is just red. Should you bother to say that the chair is red or that a man winked? It depends. The author has to assess and decide -- do I describe the things on the table or do I not? Do I need to show how her appearance effects him, or do I not?

But I would say that nine times out of ten, I don't think anyone is going to particularly notice that you used "shrugged his shoulders." Other than to then visualize the man shrugging his shoulders. On a grammatical level, it's probably a bit redundant. "Shrugged" is sufficient because we know that it's the shoulders that shrug. But sometimes, you may want to say "he shrugged his shoulders" for the rhythm of it, the sound of it. Language forms patterns, and part of writing involves using and manipulating those patterns.

There are two things I'd suggest writers watch out for in dealing with feedback -- concreteness and specificity. (I'm not sure either of those are real words, but they'll do.) Concreteness is the fact that most feedback you get, even from editors and agents, is intuitive. A reader may feel something is wrong with your text, and there are concrete reasons the reader has this feeling, but the reader can't always easily identify those reasons. And when pressed to do so, the reader may come up with reasons that are incorrect. (A good explanation of this phenomena is in the book "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell.) I learned early on that I couldn't just say to writers, the pacing is too slow. I had to figure out exactly why I felt that, but it's hard to do.

To offset this problem, getting the reader to try and find examples of what they mean, or at least the definite areas that felt wrong, lets you identify the potential problem, and then you can better assess what may or may not be going on. You can even triangulate by using several readers and seeing if the same reaction to the same areas pops up. Only then can you decide whether there is a definite, concrete problem or not, and what it is.

Specificity comes from remembering that it's your work you are dealing with, not the entire science and art of writing fiction. Feedback that talks about writing in general in relation to your work may be of limited use, while feedback that is specifically about what you are doing in your story tends to be the most practical. Writers also have to watch taking something that is said about a particular work and then trying to apply it worldwide -- a critique such as cliches overload your descriptions, that you then apply to all your writing projects and to the idea of what's possible in fiction as a whole. That's generalizing and generalizing tends to be both subjective and again, impractical.

February 27th, 2007, 12:28 AM
The purpose of language is communication. A living language will tend to organize itself into ways of expression that fulfill it's purpose. When a certain phrase works well, it gets used, when it gets used enough, it becomes a cliche. Later it becomes a rule.

We will often feel to pressure to "aviod cliches", which is true enough in the proper time and place. On the other hand, if you change all of the "cliches" on a page into something "new", you'll spend a lot of time coming up with new phrases, and your critters will tell you "I didn't understand any of it." or "I loved your flowery prose, what was the story about?"

The purpose of a story is to tell a story. Rules, grammatical, critical or otherwise, are secondary--tools at best. Take care of the important things first.


James Carmack
March 4th, 2007, 12:51 AM
Hear, hear.

I feel compelled to chime in as a counterweight to those who mindlessly parrot, "No cliches, no cliches." It's one of many--dare I say it?--cliched lines you hear if you go through any formal training. It, like almost all the rest of those tired legalisms, have had their merit grossly overinflated.

As it's already been said, cliches are a shortcut for communicating with the audience. Think of cliches as stereotypes. They're actually rather closely related when you get right down to it. We're taught that stereotypes are wrong. In fact, it's drilled into our heads, but there's a reason stereotypes came about in the first place. It's because, on some level and to some degree, they're true. Blocking out stereotypes in your mind limits your expression because you lose a shorthand for the common denominator. Now, are stereotypes always true? Of course not. The wiser path is not to completely reject stereotypes out of hand, but rather to expand your thinking to embrace not only the stereotype, but it's antipode and all the shades of grey in between.

So it should be with cliches as well. You needn't reject a cliche simply because it's a cliche. As I love to say, "Nihil novum sub solis." There's nothing new under the sun, so don't kid yourself into thinking there is and don't waste your time trying to find the fabled "new thing." Use cliches freely in as far as they get the story across, but don't stop there. Stretch them, twist them, turn them on their head. Do what works, not what someone thinks you ought to do.

I had a professor declare in a lecture one day that the line itself was cliche. Well, I have the perfect non-cliche composition for you: a blank sheet of paper. Our work as authors would be infinitely easier that way, but I get the feeling readers would probably move on to the less avant-garde types who actually use some of those dad-gummed cliches.

As a closing note, consider your audience. If you're writing so-called "literary" fiction, then you might want to play the contortionist, but if you're writing for popular consumption, don't be putting on airs. Write naturally and everything should fall into place.

March 4th, 2007, 12:07 PM
As a closing note, consider your audience. If you're writing so-called "literary" fiction, then you might want to play the contortionist, but if you're writing for popular consumption, don't be putting on airs. Write naturally and everything should fall into place.

This I disagree with. There's no difference between literary fiction and fiction for "popular consumption," known as commercial fiction, and there's no difference in the audiences for either. Where there is a difference is in styles and approaches, and even there, the range of variation is so enormous that to attempt an either-or classification is impossible. A "literary" style is one that does play with language, but authors who don't worry too much about metaphor can still twist language into interesting rhythms and do so. Poetry is not one type of thing, and you are as like to find it in a pulpy noir detective story as you are in a story about English gentry living on a bleak moor. The only difference between these two stories is how they may be marketed, which is often what breeds these make-believe distinctions. Continually, we are faced with artificial criteria against which we are weighed and measured. Cliches can be one of these.

What the reviewer meant by cliches overload your descriptions is that he was bored by the writing and the descriptions. Whether that means the writing was boring and ineffective or not is something that Holbrook has to assess, not according to an artificial criteria, but according to her particular goals for the story. A writer will not win over an entire audience. A writer may not even win over himself. Stephen King has been talking about lately how he regards the entire Gunslinger series, written over the course of more than twenty years, as first drafts and how he would like to completely rewrite all the books. His fans' reaction has been mostly shock at the very idea -- they don't see the need. But King does. Criticism is fuel for writers, not restraint, and the same goes for praise.