Fantasy writers love a bit of drama; we are the kings and queens of drama. We are so used to having American or British accents declare do-or-die statements that it’s become part of our psyche. Those are the little voices that ring in our head when we write dialogue, they sound impressive, we write them down. Yet these vague and clichéd pronouncements when you really look at them have no substance, at the very least they amount to unhelpful advice, at the most they’re just fun to shout at your enemies. But if our characters and their enemies really lived, these phrases are more likely to induce laughter rather than fear.
As writers, when we are not quite sure of the truth of the moment we fall back on clichés, when we should be avoiding them like a teen love song, locking them in a box, throwing away the key, collapsing a cave on the box and for good measure, probably set it on fire. You know the sort of pronouncements I’m talking about, I certainly found some in my manuscript:
All that was good and beautiful seemed to die in that moment when death won.
Seriously? That’s a little melodramatic isn’t it? And more than a little untrue. Death doesn’t win, it’s a natural force (unless it’s not, then you’ve got some serious world building to do). Clichés are those vague pronouncements that litter fantasy, and replace what should be said at important moments with generalisations that add no meaning to the story. The biggest cliché Isobelle found in my work was a sentence I repeated several times throughout my manuscript because I thought it was the sentence that defined Beverly and was her mantra for strength.
Destiny comes when one does not expect it. All you can do is accept it with grace, courage, wisdom and faith.
Oh it was profound, it was impressive, it was a pile of meaningless crap. As I had correctly identified, it was a super important moment, but if you truly looked at the meaning of the sentence it had very little, it was the sort of cliché that is rife in fantasy (and gives fantasy a bad name). ‘Destiny comes’, what is destiny but the future, and it is always coming, each choice and small moment leading onto the next. And was this man really telling Beverly this list of high virtues because he thought an eighteen year old could respond to some that scares the hell out of her, with ‘grace, courage, wisdom and faith’? Of course not! I don’t think any teenager in their right mind would claim this as good, reassuring advice, even a fictional one. They’d tell you to go jump first and report back to them on how it went. It took me a while to come to grips with the fact that a good story doesn’t need a catch phrase, it just needs the right truth in that moment.
As Isobelle said: I think you need to find a deeper more honest way to express the gravity of the moment than these words. Find something stronger for her to be told here, a thing that might be said to a soldier about to go out to face a war that will likely kill him, and yet which he must fight. Not platitudes or a cliché, but something true.
The main component where clichés will always find a way into your work is dialogue. Dialogue is a part of characterisation and clichés add nothing to the character. With any piece of dialogue you should be asking yourself, what are you trying to express about your characters here? Is anything real expressed or are they speaking only so you can convey information to your audience? If so then a precise explanation is more efficient than dialogue. If you have dialogue, it must add to our understanding of the character. Unless the point is that you character offers trite homilies and clichés instead of heartfelt comments or grim silence or genuine reassurances. Yes, clichés at times can be fine but only if it tells us something about the character. Very rarely do writers do it well, so it’s best avoided in general. Here are a couple of my ‘cliches’ so you can get a feel for them:
Cliché: Sometimes we are faced with hard decisions in life, we approach them as best we can but we cannot always get it right. Just remember why we are doing this. It won’t get easier, but hopefully in time you will be able to move on. (A series of trite clichés, when one real sounding sentence of reassurance would be far more effective.)
Redo: “Don’t you see? It was the betrayer that caused those deaths. We cannot always get it right, as much as we might plan and wish and hope til we are sick. I wish I could take that horrible feeling away for you.”
Cliché: When the soldiers pass out of earshot we must ride as swiftly as the wind.
Cliché: Don’t turn your back on the world because the road of life becomes more challenging. Only you can make your life count. Promise me you’ll try, don’t give up now. (The sentences before and after sound trite in this moment of pain, fear and distress.)
Cliché: “The outcome is always clouded,” I said, my voice sharp. “My knowledge is too limited, I don’t know how to seek such a destiny.” (At times it was necessary and proper for her to speak more formally, but here it was better that she spoke as Beverly and a young woman. ‘Seek such a destiny’ is a cliché and meaningless. Far better to have her say, ‘I can’t do what you want! I don’t know how!’)
Do you have trite or overused expressions in your writing? Or a character who’s dialogue is predictable? These are clichés. They are not restricted to sayings ‘Strong as an Ox’ or ‘Sadder but wiser’, they are words and phrases that have become overused to the point of losing their original meaning. Put your best cliché below.
Be on the lookout for those golden bits of dialogue in your writing, words that are wise, true and feel real, and try to emulate them elsewhere. I’ll end with a section in my manuscript, Priori, where Isobelle commented the words felt real.
“Beverly,” the commanding tone in Elitree’s voice forced me to look up. He regarded me with a stern sympathy. “I know what is going through your mind but you have to hold those feelings at bay. Courage isn’t the absence of fear but the will to go on in the face of fear. We knew what we were doing when we took you in.”