Storyville: Ten Ways to Avoid Cliches and Stereotypes :: LitReactor

walnutWhat’s worse than Writer’s Block?  Well, I’ll tell you: It’s called Cliche Diarrhea.

Yes, it’s worse.  Trust me.

I’m having a flare up today, so I asked the Internet for ways to slow the flow.   I found this helpful column via LitReactor.

Storyville: Ten Ways to Avoid Cliches and Stereotypes

by Richard Thomas

One of the ways that you can stand out as an author is to write original fiction, to have original ideas. There are a lot of different genres that have traditions rooted in certain content and form, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick with them. Here are ten suggestions for how you can avoid stereotypical stories, characters, plots, formats and other aspects of great fiction. Take a look at your writing and ask yourself if you are just regurgitating what has been done for years, writing the same stories that have been told over and over again, or if you are trying to evolve, to update the current short story, to make it contemporary and compelling—and original.

1. DO THE OPPOSITE

Take a look at your writing and ask yourself if you are just regurgitating what has been done for years, writing the same stories that have been told over and over again, or if you are trying to evolve…

I can remember when I wrote my first novella, originally titled The Outskirts, part of a collection that Nik Korpon, Caleb Ross, Axel Taiari and I are currently shopping. I had a scene where a bouncer stood in an alley, arms crossed, a long line of kids waiting to get into this hip underground club. Nik suggested that I make the doorman anything other than a large, muscled black man or a big white guy with a thick neck. And I thought, “You know what? He’s right. Why am I being so lazy?” So the next time you create a situation, think for a moment about how you’re setting it up, who you are “casting” as the actors, and what you make them look like. Why not have your serial killer go out in the morning, instead of the dead of night? What would it look like if your serial killer was a young woman instead of a hardened criminal, some discharged Marine looking for revenge? Black is white, day is night, up is down. Play around with it and see what happens. Oh, and that doorman? I ended up making him a very short guy with a Napoleon complex, very gnome-like, with a goatee and an attitude, a long stick with a taser at the end of it, and I think it turned out pretty well.

2. SELECT UNIQUE WORDS AND PHRASES

It can be as simple as choosing the color red. I took a class with Monica Drake at The Cult back in the day. We were assigned a photograph as our prompt. I decided that I wanted to figure out who was looking at that barn every day—a mother, a father, a son, or a daughter. Would they all use the same language, the same words? No. Where one might call it red, another might say crimson—one might say it looked like a persimmon, where another saw it as a bloody jail. In the end it turned out they were all the same person, a schizophrenic young woman off her medication, and that story became “Released.” As long as it doesn’t stand out, try using different adjectives instead of the first ones that pop into your head. By juxtaposing new combinations you can create a unique voice, where the red of a barn is velvet, a memory of a scarf that ended up strangling a brother, the physical depiction leaking over into strong emotions.

You’d be surprised how many phrases you use (and I do it too) that are really clichés. It was as dry as a…it was colder than a…he sobbed like a…and on, and on. When you are writing, try to catch it while it’s happening, or when you edit—tweak those phrases and make them your own. Don’t rely on the familiar, but instead, take us in new directions, and paint new visuals, set new scenes where the poetry of your phrasing is something we’ve never seen before. You’ll own it that way.

3. WRITE STRONG WOMEN

I know that in the past I’ve written my share of weak women, objectified them, and made them flat. But I’d like to think that with some of my more complicated female characters such as Annabelle in “Victimized” and Cinder in “Transmogrify” I at least tried to create a history, a set of emotions and experiences that informed their present day situations, dilemmas—and allowed them to breathe, and be unique. Look at what Gillian Flynn did with Gone Girl. I’ll try not to spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet, but she creates a female protagonist in Amy Dunne that is very complicated. Amy starts out as one kind of person, while she is in New York, and Gillian changes her over time, makes her testimony unreliable, painting her with many shades of grey (see how easy clichés slip into your writing?) until we don’t know if she is the victim or the aggressor, a woman in trouble, or a woman stirring it up. That’s how you get depth, that’s how you create a fully realized woman. Sure, the femme fatale is a standard character in crime and noir fiction, but put a twist on it, like Flynn did. Or look at Chelsea Cain and her Gretchen Lowell thrillers, which started with Heartsick, one of the few female serial killers in contemporary fiction. Resist the urge to make all women whores and prostitutes, to reduce them to emotional messes, mothers and daughters, secondary characters on the periphery. In Paula Bomer’s Nine Months she shows us a woman that is pregnant, but totally unhinged, desperate to find herself, to connect with someone, chasing her fantasies, abandoning her family, in a really interesting and dark take on motherhood—very original.

4. USE INCITING INCIDENTS AND FOCUS ON THE GROTESQUE

In a dramatic structure the inciting incident is that moment, a conflict, that begins your story and causes your protagonist to act. It is a moment in time, a tipping point, beyond which things will never be the same—a crossroads of sorts. These are those pivotal scenes in your stories and novels where you see what your characters are made of. One way to be original and unique is to get rid of everything that lead up to this event, and start right there, in media res, Latin for “into the middle of things.” So don’t give us the whole coming of age story from A to Z, start us at F or M where things really get weird and intense.

I wrote about the grotesque in a previous column here at LitReactor, but what you may not remember, or may have missed, was the way that Flannery O’Connor talked about the grotesque not only as a character, a person, traits and behaviors, but as moments, as events. In her article, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” she says, “…we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” This is what I’m talking about. Do not write about the cliché, the common, the everyday—write about the spaceship your protagonist saw in the desert, that one time two girls came home with him, the night he took what he thought was an aspirin and it turned out to be LSD. My professor at Murray State University, Dale Ray Phillips, used to encourage us to “put a damn Sasquatch in that story,” and he wasn’t kidding. It took me until now to realize that while he was serious, and he literally meant put a damn hairy ape in our fiction, I think he was also alluding to the idea of putting something strange and unique in the story—making it grotesque.

5. CREATE UNIQUE CHARACTERS AND SITUATIONS

It’s much easier to do something original when the format is different than what you are used to writing, what your audience is used to reading.

Yes, I said earlier to do the opposite when considering what to write about—what does your cop look like, what does hell resemble, how do you portray your women? But why not start with a unique combination from the beginning? Don’t just go against the grain, start out with something totally new. I know, that’s going to be difficult, but just keep pushing yourself, making one decision after another until you arrive at a unique place. Let’s say you want to write about a serial killer. First, is that idea even new? Not really. How many serial killers have we read about over the years? Why not start with somebody who is killing people against his own will, possessed? What is possessing him—a demon? No, too easy. What about an alien? No. What about one of his own previous lives, or souls? We’re getting a bit Looper already, but maybe that’s a good start. And instead of the typical white male, why not a shy Indian girl. Better. Now, what else—maybe she is mute? And that means the entire story is in her head. Look at a novel like Room by Emma Donoghue, which is told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy named Jack. Now, maybe I’m a lazy reader, but I wasn’t a huge fan of Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy—but that’s an original POV and use of language. Can you see where I’m going with this? Think outside the box. How can you be cliché when everything you’re doing is foreign and new to you, the author? I’m sure it’ll be familiar to somebody in the world, but it’s a good place to start.

Visit this rest of this story on LitReactor.

– sld

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