13 Writing Clichés That Will Kick Your Ass

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by Larry Brooks on July 29, 2010

One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard – or repeated – is to forget much of what your high school and even college creative writing teacher told you about storytelling.

No, you do not need a three page description of the setting of every scene prior to beginning any action or dialogue.  Watch how fast that will get you rejected.

Everybody already knows what a bank lobby looks like.  Give it a rest.

There’s a significant pile of such misnomers still lingering out there, most of which used to be labeled as conventional wisdom.

Nothing about publishing or movie making is the same as it was even ten years ago.  The enlightened writer continues to evolve and to reinvent themselves to keep up with the changing times.

Here are a few things to consider… all of them dead wrong. 

Character is plot.  Plot is character.

No, it’s not.  Either way.  That’s like saying that salad is dessert, or if you prefer, that your dessert is salad.

This rusty old truism tries to sell the same type of convoluted belief system where storytelling is concerned.  It’s as over-simplified as it is misleading.

Plot is the catalyst, the stage, that allows characters to show themselves and to grow.  Without plot, character is without reason to be, and without a means of revealing itself.

Character is what makes plot interesting, because we care so much more when we can feel the pain or the thrill of it all.  Otherwise the story reads like a press release.

Make no mistake, they are different elements.  One requires dressing, the other whipped cream.

Adjectives are evil.

So sayeth many writers, including Elmore Leonard in this list of writing rules that apply mainly to him and no one else.

Adjectives may be many things – risky, self-indulgent, unnecessary, redundant, insulting, etc . – but they can also make a narrative moment sing.

That’s the art of it.  As a writer of stories, you have to learn how to carry that tune.

Your characters will begin to talk to you.

Ah, the mantra of the pantser.  Waiting for the completely fictional construct of your imagination to take over the story.

This is like asking your nine year old to drive so you can enjoy the scenery.

If you have to wait until the character figures out what’s required in the story before you do, then your story is already broken.

Because the story isn’t completely and solely about the character.  It’s also about the narrative landscape upon which a drama unfolds – conflict and tension – which may not yet be fully realized within the character’s perception.

Like a nine year old who can’t see over the dashboard.

Bestselling authors are better than less-than-bestselling authors.

Absolutely wrong.  But you have to read both to know this.

Bestselling authors have a different standard than new authors or B-list authors.  They need to be pretty good to stay on the A-list, that’s true.

But for a B-list author to move up, they have to be better than good.  They need to deliver something that the publisher – long before the reading public discovers it – will decide to promote at the level of a bestseller.

Everybody sets out to write a bestseller.  Once you submit that manuscript, however, you have no control whatsoever over whether it becomes one or not. 

Published authors are better than non-published authors.

Ditto.

You have to be better than good to break in.  The slush pile at any major publisher is full of good and even great manuscripts.

Good isn’t the point.  Market upside is.

If you write a good story, somebody will eventually buy it.

Right.  And all good dogs go to heaven, too.

Sorry, that’s not what happens.  There is a hefty handful of factors involved that have nothing to do with your story – your agent, timing, the mood of the acquisitions editor, what they just bought, what just hit the bestseller list, and in no small measure, pure blind luck.

Publishers and producers are looking for new talent.

They say that.  They’ve always said that.

Take a look at the crowd during the keynote address at your next major writing conference.  Among the 800 people sitting there, a handful will end up being published.  Enough to fit into a booth at Denny’s.

Is the rest of that room untalented?  I don’t think so.  And neither do you.

What publishers and producers are really looking for is the next home run.  Which has very little to do with talent.

Writing novels is different than writing screenplays.

The format of the page itself is definitely different.  The way the script reaches its intended audience is also completely different.

But the principles that drive the effectiveness of the story on that page… almost identical.

Writing novels is a better, higher art than writing screenplays.

The average advance for a first-time novelist is a few thousand bucks, at best.

The Writer’s Guild minimum for a motion picture screenplay will buy you a new Mercedes.  The kind with a retractable hardtop.

Better?  Depends on who you ask.  That’s like saying becoming a dermatologist is better than becoming a podiatrist.

Depends on what itch you need to scratch.  Better is always relative.

Writing what the market wants is a sell out.

Call it what you will, you’ll never sell what the market doesn’t want.

Friends and family will be the first to read your published work.

An informal poll of published novelists says this just isn’t true.  Don’t count on it, you will be sorely disappointed.

It doesn’t mean they don’t love you.  It means they don’t love what you love: books.

The batting average is much better for screenwriters.  Everybody loves a premier.

Literary novels (and art films) are different than commercial novels (and art films).

On one level, yes.  Character trumps all in a literary work of art.  Which means the reading experience is indeed different.

But the writing experience isn’t different.  Same six core competencies, same sleepless nights and insecurities.  Just a matter of emphasis and depth.

You can try for Moby Dick or you can try for The Lovely Bones, which is literary as all hell.  Or you can swing for the fences with  Dan Brown and Janet Evanovich.  Your call to make.

There are no rules.

No, there aren’t.  You are free to fail as you please. 

Trouble is, too many people interpret that statement to mean they can write a viable story any damn way they please, too.

If they hope to sell it, they can’t.

Because there are principles involved – which at a glance look an awful lot like rules – that define the nature and parameters of a successful story.

It’s like music.  Unless you’re riffing contemporary jazz, you have to concede to a baseline and a beat.  The rules of the song, one that hopes to play on drivetime radio.

Symmetry, rhythm and flow – principles – are the hallmarks of all art.

If doesn’t matter if you buy this, or not.  What matters, and critically so, is that the people who write checks for manuscripts do buy it.

If you wish to attach some weird sense of nobility to your unpublished status, that’s your call.

If you are writing for them, then you must play by the rules and expectations of solid storytelling – principles – that they hold dear.

If you’re interested in learning more about those essential storytelling principles, please consider my ebook, Story Structure Demystified.  You can read a review HERE written by bestselling author Kay Kenyon.

Also, look for my new release from Writers Digest Books next February, Story Engineering: Understanding the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing, which is available for pre-order now.

{ 16 comments }

Shane Arthur July 30, 2010 at 6:59 am

Saying what needs to be said…again!
Well done.
Regards,
Shane

Melissa Karnaze July 30, 2010 at 9:45 am

Hearing #4 and 5 from a bestselling author is the encouragement I need.

And #10 (just like Sunday’s post) is challenging the dysfunctional beliefs I have about the publishing world. I used to have dysfunctional beliefs about marketing and business, but enough time hanging around Copyblogger taught me that a clear message and a stellar product needs good copywriting to get out there and change the world.

Now I’m starting to see that a read-worthy story needs to acknowledge the rules, the game, and the market to get out there and impact readers. It reminds me of The Matrix. An anti-Hollywood film that worked Hollywood funding and several Hollywood principles. And District 9 followed in that vein, and so has Inception. Point is, The Matrix would not have been what it is today if it weren’t for Warner Brothers and the Wachowskis playing that game.

Thanks for the directness and the encouragement Larry!

Realmling July 30, 2010 at 11:00 am

Following the rules is hard, and I’ve done nothing for the past week but scribble out an expanded beat sheet in my little notebook — a print out of story structure rules taped to the inside cover. I’m learning, and I might just have something to show for it in a few more days. Feels really odd though as I’ve never done a story this way before.

Don’t know if I’ve ever let my characters talk to me while I’m writing, but I do have a little trick I pull out when a scene starts to feel stubborn. I play it out in my head like watching a movie, poking and proding and viewing from different angles until I find something I like. Sometimes I shake the box and watch what happens in the following chaos, but I’m still hopefully the one in control.

Just have to be careful when I’m taking one of these “movie” breaks I don’t keep my eyes closed too long. Otherwise I end up having a nice nap on the couch and no writing happens. ;)

Tony McFadden July 30, 2010 at 5:15 pm

I like this.

I had an editor tell me that a short story I submitted was good, but “too much like a screenplay.” I took that as a compliment.

Some assumptions that I have made (and they need to be assumptions at this point because I have no hard empirical evidence to either support or ‘refudiate’ them) are that even the most wildly successful authors have first drafts that suck. That they have days where the writing feels like shoving boulders uphill in waist-deep two-day old oatmeal. And that they have a structure that they are writing to.

It keeps me going, some days.

Kelly July 30, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Hello, Larry. Kelly here.
Don’t know whether the above gives me hope or makes success seem about as likely as a July blizzard in Florida.
The frustrating part is even after doing everything right, the best manuscript may die a slow death in the depths of a slush pile.
I used to tell myself that a lot of what appeared on bookstore/library shelves wasn’t that great, but somehow those authors had risen up and grabbed the attention of an editor– spawning hope. In the end, maybe it was only luck.
That elusive factor can’t be discounted, but can’t be attained through hard work.
You may have had the right idea back in ’99, writing a prayer in the woods! :)
Regards, Kelly

Colin July 31, 2010 at 8:31 am

Great, Larry. Thanks ;o)

Lloyd L. Corricelli July 31, 2010 at 10:11 am

Larry,

In this day and age of POD and e-books, I submit it’s fairly easy to get published. Now, more so than ever, getting read is the trick and not an easy one in a more than ever crowded marketplace.

You of course know this better than anyone.

Gary August 1, 2010 at 2:57 am

I’m not sure if comments are monitored on older posts, so I’ll post this here. I was just wondering if anyone had any luck creating a generic beat sheet for all of Larry’s 4 stages of a novel? I’m finding it difficult. I’m hoping Larry may find the time to quickly throw together and provide us with a generic beat sheet to keep us on track and ensure we include the correct things for the second, third and fourth stages of a novel.

The original post pertaining to the beat sheet can be found here – http://storyfix.com/storytelling-to-the-beat-of-a-different-drummer/.

Many thanks.

Karina Fabian August 1, 2010 at 7:23 am

Good tips. I definitely agree that friends and family are not the first to read your books. Even when they get my books as a gift, I hear months (years) later, “I just haven’t gotten to it.” Like you said, nothing personal; they just aren’t big readers or readers in my genre.

I am a pantster, though, I do often have entire novels where the characters tell me the entire tale. Maybe “tell” is the wrong word, though. They show me, lead me, make me emote with them. I guess my “9-year-olds” are fairly skilled, since my books are selling and winning awards. *However,* they don’t always tell me, nor do I stop writing if they don’t. Those are the times I have to take the wheel.

I like the idea of “principles.” It goes for submitting and marketing your books, too. Another thing to remember is you have to understand the rules before you break them.

You might add a #14: What works for one writer will work for any writer. Too many people get sucked in by that one.

nancy August 1, 2010 at 8:59 am

Having followed your blog for quite a while, I pretty much know how you feel on this topic. But I read this anyway and enjoyed every last line. If you were to compare your current writing self with, say, five years ago, were you as equally adept with the homerun metaphors back then as you are now? I’m just curious if this aspect of writing begins to flow more naturally after years of practice–or did you always just have them on the tip of your pen?

Realmling August 1, 2010 at 9:03 am

@Gary -

I used this post of Larry’s – starting with the first bolded question – help generate my beat sheet:

http://storyfix.com/the-single-most-powerful-writing-tool-youll-ever-see-that-fits-on-one-page

Actually printed it out (the questions part) and taped it to the inside cover of the composition book I’m using to scribble out ideas for my latest writing project. From there, I just started writing down ideas as I went through the questions, giving me four pages of notes broken down by the four parts and major plot points of what I felt I wanted from my story. From that, I created my beat sheat, though a more detailed one. Tried to go generic with it but found it a little difficult and was just easier to flesh things out a bit more at the time.

I’m pretty new to this way of doing things, but I’ll see about doing up something more generic now that I’ve finished mine to see if that might help.

Also found I need a graphical cue on occasion to cement an idea in my brain, and I’ve got one going to help remember all the parts of story structure. Will see about sharing it when I get it finished. It’s helping me, so hopefully it can help others too. :)

Tony McFadden August 2, 2010 at 1:30 am

@Realmling, ha! I Use Scrivener and one of the pages in my Research folder is exactly that, and I don’t write my first draft until all of those questions are answered.

Great tool.

Andrea Wenger August 5, 2010 at 8:58 pm

Glad to see you debunk the “character is plot” myth. I first heard that one shortly after reading “The Da Vinci Code,” so it never rang true for me.

I think the statement “your characters will speak to you” means that your unconscious mind will speak to you through your characters. But this only happens through the process of writing — not by the author’s sitting waiting as a passive receiver. The job of the author is to drive the characters toward their goal. If the author doesn’t know what the character’s goals are from the outset, it’s like trying to follow a map without knowing your destination. You may see a lot of pretty scenery, but you risk running out of gas along the way, and you probably won’t like where you end up.

Grayson August 10, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Plot is a character in a situation.

Without character, you have a situation, not a plot. The character creates the plot. The plot is the drive, desire(s), and actions of the character within a situation.

The business side of your list is right on the money.

Alex Wilson August 11, 2010 at 12:22 pm

I liked the way you delivered this. No nonsense, conversational. I would like to hear your take on the usefulness of literary agents vs trying to approach a publisher ‘naked’.

spinx February 28, 2011 at 5:44 am

My characters do talk to me.
But I don´t let them take the full lead. That´s the secret. Whip them, scold them, and don´t follow them everywhere.

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