Often, as writers, we tend to take the path of least resistance. We’ll throw in a tired, worn-out cliché because it’s easier than actually thinking of an original description. The result is a lot of the same stories with the same characters and the same “plot-twists.” Unfortunately, nothing makes for a flat story more than unoriginality. The best writing is never easy. What we need is a little more effort, especially in the context of plot and description (specifically figurative language).
One thing I’ve found that seems to help my students is something I call “the rule of three.” The “rule” itself is not original. I’m sure I’ve heard it somewhere, I just can’t think of where. You may have heard the same idea expressed in different terms. The underlying issue is this: originality is three deep. When stuck for a reason for something happening in your plot, or when you just can’t find the right description, remember to tell yourself “no” at least three times.
Here’s an example. But, before I give it to you, I want you to go grab some paper and a pen. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Got it? Okay. Here it is: You know your character is to receive some life changing news from his/her doctor. What is that news? Write down the first five things that pop into your head.
Your list may look like this:
1. Cancer (or another terminal illness).
2. Cancer (or another terminal illness) is gone.
5. Will never walk (or run, or speak, or play guitar, etc.—something valuable to your character is gone).
According to “the rule of three,” you would have to eliminate the first three things that came to mind. Why? Because these are too easy. And they’re easy because they’ve been done so much, explored in such depth that it’s nearly impossible to put a new spin on it, or to describe it in some fashion that isn’t trite.
Notice that the further the list goes on, the more unique the answers are. Admittedly, none of the five I’ve listed is revolutionary. Still, AIDS and the loss of a loved ability are not mined nearly as deeply, so several gems may still exist.
The same principle applies for description (especially figurative language). Let’s say you need a romantic description of a woman. Write down the first five metaphors (or similes) to describe her lips. Your list may look like this:
1. Her lips were like rubies
2. Her lips were like wine
3. Her lips were like roses
4. Her lips were as soft as satin
5. Her lips pressed together like the cheeks of lovers.
Again, you’ll notice that five is far better (or at least less cliché) than the first four. And while the fifth description may not be up to your standard (as it’s not up to mine), it is a better start. The further you mine, the better gold you find.
The same applies for your characters and their back stories. Imagine your character is divorced. Why? Your character had a lousy childhood. Why? Your answers may surprise you, and that’s good. The more you’re surprised, the more your readers will be surprised. Don’t be afraid to find an answer that seems contradictory to the character as you know them. Maybe there’s more to your character than you realized. What would it be like, say, if they were divorced, NOT because their spouse had an affair, but because one of their children died, and your character could not handle the grief. That’s a completely different character, one that you will have as much fun discovering as your readers will.
You might be concerned that this process would take too long. You could spend thirty minutes searching for one description. That’s true. You could. But the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. The more you’ll notice things in the world, in your daily life when you’re not writing, and you’ll file it away for a description later. Additionally, this is an exercise best done on the second draft. While composing the first draft of your work, don’t be afraid to put in a cliché as a place holder. Just make sure to note it and come back to it, and change it before anyone else can see it.