May 14, 2015
It’s chilly and rainy. Two teenagers are under the bus stop, both with ear buds plugged into the same iPod. Girl sings snatches of what they’re listening to in a decent voice. Boy too. They’re so young they may not know they’re in love.
Long pause as they listen intently, spying on each other, waiting, then they both gasp in awe and start dancing. They catch me grinning, laugh.
Barth: What is it?
Boy: [pulling out ear bud] What?
Barth: What song?
Cliches are your worst enemy as a writer.
They’re death to you because a cliche is someone else’s thought, and, worse, it’s a phrase or image from your culture’s collection of junk-thoughts that are most often said to fill up dead, silent, useless space.
Such words are not golden. They’re trash.
Cliche is the mark of someone who is uncomfortable with their own turn of phrase, who doesn’t know how their own creativity works. That’s the opposite of a writer’s task.
Cliches are fine for office emails. But as a writer, you must l-o-v-e LOVE creating your own original thoughts, striking your own observations. Simply repeating the stock phrases, pieces of wisdom, plot devices, character traits, and story lines of so many others is inexcusable for a writer. Read tons and learn to spot tired cliches (or better, trendy statements that will SOON be cliches). Weave diamonds with your sentences and make reality out of thin air.
To do that, you need to write in the truth of the truth. You can’t do that if your brain churns out cliches, which are sentiments, ultimately. Symbols of feeling, and not a feeling itself.
“That’s the way it goes.”
“It is what it is.”
“I love her more than life itself.”
“Curses, foiled again.”
These are symbols of feelings. They’re melodrama, not drama. You can write a cliche in the first draft, that’s cool, if it’s a place marker for where you can drive in your shovel and dig up the gold later.
Let me show you exactly how to do this. Answer me, por favor: In the story you’re writing right now, what does your main character want more than anything? Write it out in a single sentence as an “I” statement. Make it emotional. Make it hurt. Break your own heart with that sentence.
If you need some inspiration, take Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride as an example: What does he want more than anything? Revenge. He says it when he first meets the Man in Black and repeats it frequently throughout The Princess Bride. He wants to kill the six-fingered man and pay him back for killing his father. Boom. That’s it.
Now…that’s a cliche. And in the storybook world in which writer William Goldman operates, he lets that tired cliche stand through the whole movie. But he is going to deliver a twist that makes it all work and freshens the cliche with real feeling. Goldman knows that revenge is not the heart-breaking “I” statement, nor is it the real truth of Inigo Montoya, the real feeling that his character feels in the pit of his heart. REVENGE is something fine to write on a note card next to your hero’s name. But when writers say “write the truth,” this is what they’re really talking about:
“I want my father back, you son of a bitch.”
That’s the line. Montoya doesn’t want revenge, really, and Goldman knows it. But he holds it back, let’s Montoya come to that line in the most dramatic moment so the line is yanked our of him. Finally, facing the villain of his dreams, Montoya says, “Promise me riches! Promise me everything I desire!” He doesn’t say, “Ha ha! Vengeance is mine!” or “Now I have you!” Goldman is too good a writer for that. In the final moment when Montoya finally has his quarry cornered, Goldman let’s the real feeling out, and it’s like a gunshot. We realize this is not just a cliche storybook fairy tale. There’s a true feeling to be experienced.
That’s your goal in writing your character’s greatest want. If you can’t give yourself a sob, raise a shiver in your own skin, or imagine readers looking up from your book in sheer awe when you distill that character’s longing down to a single sentence (and then use it when it’s most effective in your story), then you haven’t hit the truth of your character’s truth yet. Get closer. Jump the rails and sneak past the symbols of feeling, the sentiment and cliche, the stories your teachers, friends, parents, and family approve of. And write the fuck out of that character.
Kristen Lamb’s blog is an excellent resource for beginning writers and writers dedicated to craft. https://wordpress.com/read/post/id/8132324/17236/
In this post she talks about structure, which is near and dear to my heart right now. Go read it. I’d only add this:
See if you can hone your lead’s primary objective into a single word. SURVIVAL. LOVE. Sure, your hero is more complicated than a single objective can encompass, but the exercise will sharpen your focus and tighten up your tension in a sprawling or diffuse plot. Have characters in the story voice this primary objective as observation, exhortation, or comments of disbelief.
My hunch is that the Ghost of Hamlet’s Dad was a late-draft addition to Hamlet, when Shakespeare realized he had a nattering, complacent do-nothing for a main character who’s primary objection wasn’t clear to the Bard. Shakepeasre wisely put the motivation for his main character (“REVENGE”) in the form of a murdered and unredeemed spirit from beyond beseeching his son to take action.
If you can’t boil your main character’s motivation down to a single word, your hero might need a “Hamlet’s Dad’s Ghost.”
Whether we are traditionally published, indie published or self-published, we must connect with readers and tell a great story. Structure is the “delivery system” for our story, so it’s wise to make it as solid as possible.
Welcome to Part IV of my Structure Series—Testing the Idea
I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60-100,000 words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task.
That said, all novels begin with an idea. But how do we know if our idea has what it takes to make a great novel?
Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then…
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A woman with strikingly huge eyes (looks like a young Shelly Duvall) sits across the aisle from Barth at the front of a crowded #6 Southbound from Downtown. They’re facing each other.
Shelly Duvall starts doing strange things with her eyes, rolling them slowly as though testing her field of vision, looking at the ceiling, then down at the ground, left then right and back again — all while keeping her head perfectly still.
Finally, her giant eyes land on Texting Woman to her immediate right. Shelly Duvall angles her head so she can read what the woman is texting. Suddenly, she looks straight ahead, stricken. After a moment, her giant eyes slowly shift under her heavy lids to look to her right again.
The shifty, sidelong look is so comic, like something from a Warner Brothers cartoon, that Barth can’t help but laugh under his breath.
Shelly Duvall’s eyes finally land on Texting Woman’s screen and begin to read again. Her eyebrows knit slightly. Texting Woman shifts slightly in her seat and Shelly Duvall abruptly looks straight ahead, eyes wide, all innocent, then slooooowly the big eyes shift back to the screen. Shelly Duvall makes a shocked moue and widens her big eyes in stagey surprise and lets out the tiniest of laughs. Texting Woman looks up and Shelly Duvall pretends to be looking out the front of the bus. Texting Woman adjusts how she sitting. After a moment, Shelly Duvall leeeeeans back ever so slowly and gets a look at the screen again and now begins to laugh and must pretend to cough to cover the outburst of laughter.
Barth laughs too. Both pretend they’re coughing. Shelly Duvall makes eye contact with Barth whose laughter makes her laugh even more. Both are coughing and laughing, hands over their mouths.
Texting Woman continues to text.
Barth spreads his hands, like, “What did you read??”
Shelly Duvall shakes her head. No. Can’t go into it.
Barth spreads his hands, like, “Come ON! You have to tell me!”
Shelly Duvall is now laughing even harder in silent, frozen distress. Shakes her head helplessly.
Barth wants to kill Shelly Duvall. Let’s her know with a big angry frown.
Shelly Duvall keeps her hand over her mouth, makes a fist, then, with her tongue poking in the cheek opposite Texting Woman, Shelley Duvall makes the international sign for blow job.
July 26, 2014
The 22 pulls up.
Barth: (boarding) I was ready to throw myself in front of the bus to make you stop! Which is funny because normally I get thrown under buses.
Driver: He’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip the waitress. She’s only got one leg, so she’s easy to tip.
Lone Passenger on Bus: Jesus fucking Christ.
[Bus stop at the corner of Franklin and Hennepin. Insanely cold. Dark. Exhaust freezing midair in car headlights.]
Guy 1: Anyone lose a sock?
[None of the ten people waiting answers him.]
Guy 1: There’s a sock right there. In the ice. Anyone lose this sock?
[Everyone pretends this isn’t happening.]
Guy 1: [digs sock out of the solid ice on the sidewalk, holds it up: A stiff, cardboard cut-out of a sock. It’s gaudily striped in 7 seven different colors.] Anyone?
Guy 2: Holy shit.
Guy 1: What?
Guy 2: That’s MY sock.
Guy 1: Yeah? It was right here.
Guy 2: Let me look at it. [Takes frozen sock.] Yep. [Rolls up one leg of his snow pants to reveal he is wearing an identical sock, same gaudily-colored stripes.] I lost it like a month ago.
Guy 3: NO. WAY.
Guy 2: [putting frozen sock in his backpack] I must have dropped it on the way to the laundry down the street there. That was like a month ago.
Guy 3: NO. FUCKING. WAY. THAT’S *YOUR* SOCK??
Guy 1: Well, there it is. That’s why I was meant to go in to treatment today. To find your sock for you, brother.
[Guy 1 and Guy 2 give each other a hardy, backslapping bro hug.]
GUY 3: THIS MAKES NO GODDAMN FUCKING SENSE! NO WAY. HE JUST WALKED UP HERE AND *FOUND* YOUR SOCK?