I start every post in this series by pointing out my early lack of knowledge of creative writing terms. As a wise writing sage once said, “Knowing is one thing, doing is another.” Or maybe that was Yoda…
Study and practice have improved my writing, but it took years for me to realize clichés aren’t limited to phrases, point of view isn’t just a matter of writing in first person or third, and there is a knack to influencing a reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief.
This is the next in my series of what-I-wish-I’d-known-then posts that includes definitions and links for further reading.
We all know clichés are phrases that were brilliant when first spoken or penned (Shakespeare was a master at this ) but have become tired and overused with time. In everyday life, a cliché is a handy go-to that we often use without thinking. When I tell people “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “I’m busier than a fly on poop,” they know what I mean without further explanation. The ease of using clichés is exactly the reason a writer should avoid them—they’re considered a sign of lazy writing. Claire Bradshaw advises writers to change things up, to turn “clichés on their head and subvert reader expectations with original plot, theme and character elements.”
Clichés can show up in several areas of writing:
a. Characters. Prostitute with a heart of gold, spoiled rich kid, dumb jock, dashing rogue, evil dark lord.
b. Descriptions. The rain fell in sheets, tears welled up in her eyes. Polly Iver from The Blood-red Pencil writes: “Whenever I come across one of those overdone descriptions, I grit my teeth, square my shoulders, and bang my head against the wall―sorry.”
c. Dialog. Conversations between characters are a place where clichés are acceptable because they’re a normal part of speaking.
d. Phrases/metaphors/similes. Avoid like the plague, right as rain, dime a dozen, a breath of fresh air, love is like a rose.
e. Plot. An orphan discovers he’s really a prince, a prince falls in love with a woman of lowly stature, a band of lowly misfits goes on a quest for a magical something to save the world.
Now Novel: “What is cliché? Cliché examples (and how to avoid)”
Cliché Finder: Enter a word or phrase and the finder will return a corresponding cliché.
Be a Better Writer: “681 Clichés to Avoid in Your Creative Writing”
Point of View (POV)
a. Technique. (1) First person [I, we]: I like vanilla ice cream. My husband likes chocolate. We both love banana splits.; (2) Second person [you, your]: You like vanilla ice cream. Your husband likes chocolate. You both love banana splits.; (3) third person and omniscient [he, she, they]: She likes vanilla ice cream. Her husband likes chocolate. They both love banana splits.
b. Perspective. Writing from a character’s particular point of view that allows the reader to experience life from the eyes (ears, etc.) of that character—the eye or lens of a story. This perspective reveals how characters interpret the world through their senses and emotions. Janice Hardy’s excellent advice is: “Forget write what you know. Write what the character knows.”
c. POV Violation occurs when a character’s POV (perspective) reveals something that character can’t possibly see, hear, smell, know, or discern. As an example, if a villain is standing behind Tina, Tina can’t see the villain’s evil grin. (Tina can’t even see her own evil grin.) Tina also can’t know what the villain is thinking. “Tina didn’t notice […]” or “Little did Tina know […]” are also POV violations, both outside the realm of what she knows or discerns.
Janice Hardy, Fiction University: “Room With a (Point of) View: Understanding POV”
NY Book Editors: “What’s the Difference Between Perspective and Point of View?”
Rachel Starr Thomson on Live Write Thrive: “Whose Head? Point of View in Fiction”
Suspension of Disbelief
For readers to become immersed in a fictional world, they need to let go of the real world long enough to suspend their disbelief. According to OxfordDictionaries.com, to suspend disbelief is to “temporarily allow oneself to believe something that is not true, especially in order to enjoy a work of fiction.” Readers can be pulled out of a story—their suspension of disbelief broken—for many reasons such as inconsistent characters, broken story rules, and plot holes or contrivances (as well as clichés and point of view problems).
Shannon Dittemore at GoTeenWriters explains the concept this way: “Regardless of the medium, we choose to believe all sorts of things presented to us that simply aren’t true. We’re willing to believe that crime labs can return results lickity split, that our heroine’s makeup will be unaltered after a swim in the ocean, that Edward Cullen’s persistent five o’clock shadow is not a sign of aging, that a pair of glasses can hide Clark Kent’s real identity, that the only way Prince Charming could possibly identify his soulmate is by her shoe size. When the desire for a really good tale collides with compelling elements like voice and plot and world building, audiences are willing to let reality slide a bit. They are willing to suspend their disbelief.”
Shannon Dittemore’s series on Suspension of Disbelief, Part 1
Standout Books: “Are You In Danger Of Losing Your Readers’ Suspension of Disbelief?”
Read A.L.S. Vossler’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Continuity Error” for a discussion of a viewer’s (or a reader’s) willing suspension of disbelief exemplified by Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
As a writer, how do you handle weeding out clichés, fixing point of view issues, or solidifying a reader’s suspension of disbelief? From a reader’s perspective, what pulls you out of a fictional world?