A lot of writers merrily use cliché in their story. Using them might be obvious, but in that lie several benefits. People fill in a lot of information for those characters(and plotlines) themselves, because it plays into their expectations. It means you have to use less words to put down a character, less cues to create a plotline, leaving more space for other characters, other plotlines you want to include.
Personally, however, I love how you can use clichés best by how you can use them to lead readers on, to use their expectations to generate plot twists by having what at first glance appeared a cliché deviate from what people think it will do. When you have the damsel in the frilly pink dress clobbering giants in her spare time, or the vampire that loves his kittens – not to eat but to hang out with-, or the honest politician. It creates left fielders people do not see coming because of preconceived notions on how things are. Like starting a really gritty story set in a modern world with ‘once upon a time’.
By flipping the cliché, you can thus create a sort of emotional contrast, leading on with what’s expected and then turning it into something more exciting. Although its impact does diminish when it’s done too much. After all, if everyone turns the damsel in distress into a strong character saving herself, it will by definition turn into a cliché itself.
What is your favorite flipped cliché?
Apparently my goal for this year, to post every week, isn’t going to happen. However, I am still writing, and working on other types of stories. I’m thinking of picking up an old project again in November. A project I’ve worked on a fair bit, but which still needs oceans of TLC to come any closer to being done. I am not starting a new project for November Novel Month, like I did last year. I want to finish projects before I start another large scale project. While there are plenty of cool ideas to go after, I am still very excited about some of the projects in progress. And as long as I don’t finish the story itself, it’s hard to share with others. So time to type more!
Coming up from feeling sick, I’ve been spending a bunch of nights, while the world outside feels wet and dark, motivating myself by doing some editing. This may sound funny, but unlike most people, I enjoy the hell out of editing. For a long time I felt like I didn’t have the patience to finish a long story. When I am editing, I am looking at the proof that yes, I sat down and actually wrote all of those words. And now I get to fix the mistakes I made the first time around! (I am a total perfectionist. Making things better is something I always enjoy doing.) Also, I tend to write what I love. Wading trough the words is therefore fun. And because it refreshes my memory on what I’ve built, it’s very inspiring. I always end up having new ideas for little pothooks, either for the story I am polishing or for a different one, sometimes within the same story-world. It gives me a platform, all mine, to explore from.
One thing I have been spending a lot of thought on while editing, is the action versus detail balance. I have written about this balance before. This time, I have been working on a different balancing of this concept. Sometimes, describing instead of showing can speed up the pace of the story. Less detail, more skipping the less exciting parts. Sometimes, though, it turns something that could have been beautiful, meaningful or exciting into a bland description. I guess it’s also a part of the ‘showing’ or ‘telling’ balance, where I generally prefer showing wherever it doesn’t boggle down my story with too many details.
So within my editing I’ve been addressing a lot of smaller descriptions, asking myself, whether or not the description mostly speeds the story up or makes it more bland. And then the task of turning the bland bits into bits with more detail follows. I do hope in the end, this edit will improve the story. I think it will, and regardless of whether or not I’ll be successful, I am learning oodles about balancing my stories.
Recently, I ran into a snag with one of the stories I’m writing, and it got me thinking about character identity.
We humans all have ideas about who we are. I believe most of us have even consciously thought about why we are the way we are. We have stories we tell ourselves and others about ourselves. Tales about where we came from, whom our parents were, what our background is. We also have beliefs about what we do, and what we’re good at, whether we’re actually good at it or not. Thoughts about what is right and what is wrong. These ideas shape who we are and who we want to be. They are part of our identity.
If you’re writing a three dimensional character, or a round character, your character also has a origin story. They’ll have a story or even multiple stories that they tell themselves and the characters around them about who they are and why they are the way they are. The character would have ideas about what they’re good at, who they should be and who they actually want to be.
This means that when developing a character, you’re not only thinking about who they actually are, but also who they believe they are and who they believe they should be. These don’t always overlap, and can create very interesting situations.
In the case of the story I was writing, the character is a competent person coming from a privileged background. But the story the character tells herself, is one of competition and struggle. Of working hard for what she has. Of fighting to be seen as a worthwhile person. And in her own way, she has.
For the writers among you, I’d like to challenge you to think about the question of who your characters believe they are?
This month I am entering a contest for short stories. In reality, short stories are not really my thing. I tend to be verbose and detail oriented, and am a better world builder then I am a crafter of plots. Which means that in general, I need lots of words to tell the story I want to tell *just right*.
Which, quite naturally, makes writing short stories an entirely beneficial exercise for my writing muscles. It forces me to leave out most info-dumps, because there is no space. I have to craft a clear, compact plot-line, and leave out the details I tend to get boggled down by. I forces me to work on increasing the speed of my story, which I value greatly.
But the fact that doing it in itself is an educational experience is not entirely why compete in these contests. That’s more of a pleasant side-effect. I compete, because the contests I enter into tend to give you feedback. Feedback written by people that genuinely want you to improve and who get nothing out of it except the honor of saying they judged the contest. People that tend to know their craft, so the feedback they give tends to be very useful.
After I finish the story for this contest, I will work on the next one, although that contest is not one you can ‘win’ in the traditional sense. Also not a contest that provides the marvelous gift of feedback. It’s not even for short stories. I am entering NaNoWriMo. And the contest is writing a lot of words. The reward is having written a lot of words. I hope I’ll manage, and I am greatly looking forward to it.
If you enter contests, what do you get out of it?
The stories I’m passionately about tend to be very diverse. Sweeping sagas with tragic heroes, romantic and light, tales that provide serious food for thought… I enjoy them all. What does stand out, though, is that a relatively large amount of those stories tend to have action rich, fast paced story-lines, and a vivid, vibrant, interesting and original setting. I also greatly value my opinionated female main characters, but I guess that’s because as an opinionated female myself I tend to identify fairly easy with those.
Fast paced story-lines and world building, unfortunately, is not something that always goes together well. That which is needed for world building, namely words devoted to the world and the characters, often directly slows down the pace of the story. It’s a difficult balancing act in which authors have to make many hard choices.
Which brings me to what I’m reading at the moment. I usually only read one novel at a time, but currently I’m reading two. One lies firmly in the Urban Fantasy genre, the other one is situated in the gray area between historical romance and classical fantasy. Both are well written, their strong points however differ slightly. One has more details and more character building. The world, the characters, the events are so vivid and believable they almost appear real. Very high praise for a novel as far as I’m concerned. And yet, I catch myself preferring the other. It’s a shorter story, but not short. The pace of the story, however, is much, much higher. What the first novel takes pages and pages to describe, this one lets fly by in less than a single one. And that combined with the accessible writing and well placed jokes is such that it pulls me in, and won’t let go.
So in the end, I guess I prefer novels in which the scales slightly tip towards a faster pace over a higher degree of depth to the novel. What do you prefer?