Monday, March 25, 2013

On Second Thought

One problem I find myself often running into while writing is the question "Is this too common?" "Is this too predictable?" "Is this too cliche?" As a writer, you want to surprise your audience. From the big twists to the little motivations and backstory, you want to keep the reader interested and you want to keep them guessing. The problem is, I was often finding myself answering "yes" if I wondered if a motivation or plot point was cliche. Now, cliche isn't necessarily a bad thing. At this point in time, everything's been done before and often done to death. The important thing is to make it your own. You can find countless infographs comparing stories like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. They're each their own unique story and you'd not think of them as being similar, but there many VERY general aspects that are the same between the two, and sometimes more.

See what I mean? Reduce the details and every story is cliche. I try not to worry about the general cliche. My stories will be compared to many other things over time, and maybe someday, other people's stories will be compared to mine. What concerns me is the cliche in the details. The "wants to rule the world" villain "because he's just evil/crazy". The king's advisor who might as well be wearing a Jafar costume. The "they'll be together by the end of the book" sidekick who excels at what the hero's bad at. Thecore of the problem is that these cliches are so embed in our subconscious that when we come to story development, they're the first thing you think of! So how can you fix that?

Second thought. I can't remember if I got this from a book, a post on the NaNoWriMo forums, or if I just came up with it (I don't think I'm that clever. I suspect I read it somewhere), but last October, I gave someone this advice. "Take your first thought. Toss it. Think of a new way to accomplish what you wanted to. Toss that too. Keep the third, or the fourth, or the fifth. The further you go, the less predictable and cliche it should be." When I came up to a crossroad in my plotting, I decided to try my own advice.

MC was a senior in high school. Did she have a job?
First thought: Yes, she worked retail. Realistic, but boring. It didn't give me any development for her, either.
Second thought: No, she was focused on her studies. Also boring. A little more development, but not much.
Third thought: I had to think this one over a bit. It was harder with the "throw-away" answers out of the way. What could a teenager do that wasn't retail/food service or not working? ...An internship. She wanted to be a journalist and got a job doing basic work for the local newspaper.
Well, that's more interesting, and it gave me a much better idea of who she was, what she wanted out of her future (and would subsequently lose in the story). It gave me a lot more characterization than just saying she worked at a grocery store would have.

I ended up using the technique my writing buddy and I have started to refer to as "Second Thought" through most of the book, and onward. It doesn't always work, and sometimes I just really, really want to use the first idea, or nothing else fits quite as well, no matter how cliche it is. In those cases, I tend to just let it go. Sometimes, a little cliche and expected works, and sometimes it's okay, no matter how hard it may feel to convince myself of that. But when the puzzle piece fits but just doesn't feel right, the second thought may just be the way to go.

Do you have any tricks you use to avoid cliches in your writing?

1 comment:

  1. I like how we call it Second Thought even though much of the time we go for the third. One thing I do like to do, though, is use the levels to add depth and/or deception for the reader, especially when it comes to character motivations.

    Often, the first thought will be a first impression, the second thought will be the "real" reason that later comes to light, but still an external consequence of the third thought, which usually has to do with motivation.

    As for avoiding cliches, that is pretty much impossible. The only thing that really helps is to physically write things out, rather than do it in my head. It's too easy to run in circles in my head. :-)