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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Avoiding Clichés

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Clichés make everyone cringe. They hurt your writing, and they usually trigger an involuntarily eye roll or groan from readers. It's best just to avoid them altogether. But sometimes it's hard to determine whether or not something is clichéd. Colors are easy. If it's something you've heard quite often--fire engine red, pitch black, or sky blue for example--you know it's probably one of those descriptions with a cliché tag attached. But what about characters, opening scenes, and individual lines? Though clichés vary from genre to genre and there are many of them, there are a few key ones that spread across all genres that you'll want to watch out for. Mary Sue/Gary Stu If you've been writing for any length of time, you've probably heard of a Mary Sue (Gary Stu for the male counterpart). These characters are very predictable, stereotypical, and downright boring. They are neither very well-developed nor original. Though not always true, Mary Sues/Gary are often protagonists, and can even be a reflection of the author's personality. While sharing just one or two quirks, habits, or interests with the author isn't a big deal, the protagonist shouldn't be a portrayal of the author. In fact, each character needs to be his/her own person. No two people on this planet are exactly alike, and no two characters should be either.

Tips for avoiding clichéd characters:

1.      Give each character a distinct and different personality.
2.      Avoid making them a Plain Jane or an outcast. This type of character is way overdone, especially for a protagonist. If you're going to make your main character typical in either of these ways, be sure to include something extraordinary about them, setting them apart from the rest.
3.      Avoid using stereotypes for characters, such as nerd, jock, dumb blonde, etc.
4.      Give characters a realistic body type. Having no physical flaws at all--or at least not having a body part the character is unhappy with--is impractical.
5.      Be specific. The more details you provide about your character, the clearer and more unique he/she will be.
6.      Make them well-rounded; give them more than one interest. Pick hobbies that fit the individual.
7.      Give them several faults of any type. Everybody has them. Just as there are no perfect people, there should be no perfect characters.

Life Stories and Death Scenes One of the quickest ways to diminish any interest a potential agent or publisher might have in your book is by having a "My name is..." opening. This is a habit many inexperienced writers develop during their early years of writing. They use this type of opening in an effort to show the importance of the story itself. I've certainly been guilty of it before, and I have to force myself to dive right into the story sometimes. It's tempting to give an introduction to the main character; after all, they are usually the most important person in the story. However, if a book is well-written, introductions aren't necessary in the general sense. The author does not need to make the character address the reader in any way. If the plot and action are good in the beginning chapters, the reader/agent/publisher will be hooked regardless.

Another often used opening is a death scene. It's a great, dramatic entrance, and lets the reader know that something big happened. The idea is to make the reader want to read more about what happened, capturing their interest and preparing them for the rest of the book. But sometimes method has the opposite effect. When someone picks up a book to read, they expect a good story to be told. They expect there to be a plot with substance, one that builds up and leads to a climactic point. By starting with a huge death scene, the author has already given away a valuable asset in storytelling, the climax. My advice is this: If you're going to start with a death scene, make it make it odd. Make it small or meaningless. Make it a joyous event, or something else unexpected. Have it be a cause and effect event. In other words, make it completely unique to any other death scene you have ever read, or make it so ordinary that that reader flips through it without much thought. This will give you a personalized opening without giving away key moments in the story right off the bat.

Tips for avoiding clichéd opening scenes:

1.      Avoid introduction speeches.
2.      Avoid giving away a climactic moment.
3.      Make the scene have at least one unique element to any other story.
4.      Research clichéd opening scenes, and avoid them. These include dreams, storms (especially at sea), and daily morning routines. Here's a great source about clichés when writing scenes: http://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2010/05/06/8-common-cliche-mistakes/.

Dark and Stormy Nights Clichéd lines are just about as annoying as clichéd characters. These lines include those such as the infamous, "It was a dark and stormy night," "Houston, we have a problem," and "Is it just me, or is it hot in here?" Most of the time, these lines are part of dialogue, but not always. However, there is a way to overcome clichés: avoid them, or make fun of them. If you use them and it's obvious that you're poking fun at the line, go right ahead. Some of the most successful television series are ones that make fun of themselves from time to time. Just use this tactic sparingly.

Tips for avoiding clichéd lines:

1.      Research. It's pretty easy to know what is a cliché and what isn't, especially if you've heard the line before, but here are examples of a few just to get you started: http://digitalderon.com/top-ten-lists/digitalderos-top-10-worst-cliche-lines-of-dialogue/.
2.      If it's a line that doesn't just hint at what's coming but makes it blatantly obvious, skip it.
3.      Pay attention to the weather. Yucky weather can certainly make a bad day worse, but that doesn't mean it always has to rain. If your character is heartbroken or depressed, making it dark and rainy outside just sets you up for one of those used-one-too-many-times lines.