You’ve received feedback: “The prose overall needs to be scrubbed for cliche and over-used wording.” The meaning here is obvious, but what to do about it? Are you really compelled to write a narrative that sounds different than you speak? Sure. You easily leave out the “umm” and “like” and “listen here, friend” in order to achieve a transparent decorum of formality. Why not leave out the trite phrases and images that everyone seems to know already? I would argue it’s fundamental to story-telling–at least the story-telling we are interested in.

Here’s a test: If you can google a quoted set of 2 or 3 words and find tens or hundreds of thousands of matches, you’re best to find something else. Another test: If you can say the first half of the phrase and most folks can guess the rest of the phrase without prompting, that is also a bad sign.

Let’s say you’re tempted to write in the narrative (not dialog) this phrase, “a woman’s work is never done.” Not only is this over-used (13 million hits!) but it is also derogatory, inasmuch as a progressive woman will not saddle herself with an unfair load simply based on gender “obligations” Additionally it is culturally-specific and maybe era-specific to mid-1950s American suburban middle-class WASPs. Is that really what you want to convey about your character? Can’t you find a more original way to say it?

Try this in the narrative (not dialog): “Tall, dark and handsome,” which taken literally applies to Darth Vader as well as Abraham Lincoln. Such ambiguous words lead to a lack of specificity. In that case why are you writing them? Furthermore, in this case, the cliche’s connotation is that the narrative speaker is female, possibly lonely and a bit longing, romantically.

Is there any lack of truth in a cliche? A stereotype? A common turn of a phrase? Of course not. The point is to distinguish your narrative utterly, while at the same time achieving thematic universality through resonance with the audience. The temptation is to resonate by using something familiar. Using old things in new ways is a real struggle.

By way of example, you film buffs out there will know that the use of Ligeti’s composition in the recent Godzilla soundtrack was largely panned as odd and unoriginal, if not regarded at least as some sort of misplaced, ill-conceived homage. Inexperienced movie-goers presumed that it was simply taken from Kubrick’s film soundtrack¬†2001 (The director himself admits stumbling on the piece in the 2001 soundtrack while developing the said action sequence for Godzilla.) However, the iconic choral piece does predate even Kubrick’s use of it by seven years. Is this chorale never to be used again in a film? Maybe not. It’s almost impossible to overcome the ingrained experience conveyed in Kubrick’s earlier film. The onus on the modern filmmaker to re-use it uniquely–even after 45 years–is huge.

So much for film. In literature this re-use problem applies to choices in story elements, as well as narrative itself. Does your mother character lay guilt-trips? Is your detective hard-boiled? Is your dark night also stormy? Is it raining out when your character mopes at the window sill? Is there an animal in the distance making a noise? It had better be darn original.

We are modernists you say? Maybe. T.S. Eliot did say, “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.” It means to take ideas, take unique words, take startling imagery and make it your own. So you can write about familiar story elements, but you are really going to have to struggle to make them fresh. Eliot was a modernist and arguably subscribed to the “make it new” mantra, though maybe not quite in the way that says, “it’s never been said that way before.” But perhaps you get the idea.

Christopher T Garry

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