Exploit the power of clichés
Published: August 1, 2008
|In the September 2008 issue of The Writer, Eric Witchey offered fiction writers a Step by Step approach for finding the deeper meanings and benefits of clichés. Following is some additional material from Witchey, starting with a brief look at how changing one word in a cliché helped lead to a published short story.|
Before and After
Here's an extreme example of moving from cliché to saleable fiction.
Beginning with a cliché line as a writing prompt—He wanted to run off and join the circus—and using primarily two techniques, I created the short story "Circus Circus," which appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine in 2007.
The story is about an outcast child in a Mexican pueblo who, as boys will, visits a fortune teller at a traveling circus. When the woman asks him what he wants, he tells her he wants to become the circus so that everyone will love him. The story is a fantasy with elements of magical realism, so in the end the boy actually does become a circus.
People often ask how I come up with ideas like that. The answer is so simple they often don't believe it. The first technique I used was to change one word in the cliché, so it became: He wanted to run off and become the circus. The second was to use the process described in my article in the magazine for drawing deeper meanings out of clichés.
Here is the opening paragraph of "Circus Circus," which, as you can see, has taken the new spin on a clichéd situation and run with it:
When the circus was very small, it believed it would grow up
to have many multi-colored big tops with banners on the
support poles and three rings in each tent ... At each village,
the circus would find a small, clear area, an area nobody wanted
or cared about, a place to dig in its poles and stakes and
lift its canvas and lay out its midway and wait for the laughter
and love of the children.
1. Make a list of clichés and see how unique and startling you can make each one by changing only one word. For an example, see the Before and After sidebar above.
2. Write down as many clichés as you can think of. Keep a running list of them, and add to it anytime you hear a new one. For fun, sit down to the list now and then and tease one out into all the brainstormed characteristics you can think of, then use the characteristics as writing prompts for five-minute speed-writing sessions. Practice using clichés to develop subjective character experience in narrative.
3. Reverse the process described in the main article to develop a deeper understanding of the tool. By this I mean, find passages in books you love and do the unthinkable: Reduce good writing to clichés. Then, consider how you might use the process to create results like the passages you chose.
A passage from To Kill a Common Loon, a novel by Mitch Luckett:
Up close and personal, in the daylight, the pig was one of those pot-bellied
pigs, emphasis on the potbelly, which obscenely dragged the floor,
constituting a fifth leg. Didn't even smell like a pig. Pigs, to me, always had
that exuberant potent barnyard aroma, the familiar earthy odors of sour
mash, alfalfa hay, damp straw and assorted excrement. This porker had an
artificial coconut scent mingled with talcum powder. She had a red bow
ribbon tied to her corkscrew tail, and, hanging around her five-chins neck
was a rhinestone collar and a silver plated badge which read, "Deputy Barbie
Jane." Barbie Jane's hooves—'scuse me—manicured nails were painted a thick
lacquered pool table green.
A clichéd summary of this passage: The pot-bellied pig was all dolled up and pretty as a picture.
A passage from Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut:
Colonel Reyes had already activated the brain of the tremendous self-
propelled weapon slung underneath his airplane. That was its first taste of
life, but already it was madly in love with the radar dish atop the control
tower at Guayaquil International Airport, a legitimate military target since
Ecuador kept ten of its own warplanes there. This amazing radar lover under
the colonel's plane was like the great land tortoises of the Galapagos Islands
to this extent: It had all the nourishment it needed inside its shell.
A clichéd summary of this passage: Colonel Reyes' missile would go to the radar dish like Cupid's arrow to the heart.
This collection of titles offers a wide range of writerly help, ranging from inspiration and language to advice on technique and story structure.
Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes by Roberta Allen
Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron
American Slang by Robert L. Chapman
The Art of Creative Writing and The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri
How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey
Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg
Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms by R.W. Holder
Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight
Writing from the Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo
Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader, edited by Robin Scott Wilson
--Posted Aug. 1, 2008