Two Birds with One Stone

two birdsNothing kills a book quite like tired prose. You know what I’m talking about—the books that reheat every cliché imaginable and serve it to you lukewarm without so much as a sprinkling of originality. But then, there are so many successful books that seem to be virtual copies of older novels. Take, if you will, The Lord of the Rings. How many fantasy novels have patterned themselves after this epic? Also consider the Eragon novels, wildly successful in the YA Fantasy market. Critics of the series call it Star Wars with a dragon. And they’re right.

On that note, countless examples of books like this can be provided. Think of some of the most popular novels (especially in the YA market). Most can be broken down to some crude description of a marrying of two archetypes. Twilight—Romeo and Juliet with fangs.

I don’t say this to criticize the premise of these novels. In fact, I like the ideas. Where the books fall apart is in the prose. The problem is, while they’ve taken a proven formula and applied a slight twist for originality’s sake, the prose itself is lined with uninspired description. As a general rule of thumb, archetypes are successful for a reason (especially when rammed together, or twisted enough to provide an original flair, as we’ve seen in the previous examples). Cliché descriptions are prose killers. Here’s the difference:

An archetype is an original pattern in storytelling, character building, etc. This includes story ideas like “The Hero from the Provinces” and “The Devil Figure” or “The Evil Character with the Ultimately Good Heart.” Star Wars relied heavily on many of these character and story archetypes. Some time ago, the History Channel did a great documentary on it called Star Wars—The Legacy Revealed. It’s on YouTube, and highly worth watching. For a more complete list of character and story archetypes, click here

A cliché is an easy phrase or expression that has lost power because of overuse, in writing, most often used in description. Think “raining cats and dogs” or “two birds with one stone.” While these are pretty easy to avoid, I find the worst offenders of cliché are those who write melodramatically (next week, I’ll blog about this in greater detail). The clichés I find unforgivable are the ones that generally describe sorrow. “She cried a river of tears.” In fact, anything comparing tears to any body of water are better avoided. Here’s a great site with some of the most common clichés. It’s pretty safe to say that these should be avoided “like the plague.” 

One place clichés work, however, is in your first draft. But they only work as a place holder. If you find yourself composing something dreadfully cliché, maybe like “white as snow,” mark it down. On your second pass through your manuscript, make sure you take the time to find a more apt description.

For fun, take a couple of the archetypes from the above site, and ram them together. Or, take a couple examples of popular entertainment (movies, books, video games, etc.) and smash it up with a classic (Shakespeare, maybe). For extra fun, change up the setting. This is also a great way to pitch your book ideas to publishers. My current novel, a YA Fantasy novel, I’ve called Narnia meets Tron.

I’d love to hear what you all could come up with. Leave me a comment with your ideas. Here, I’ll start you off:

Julius Caesar with ray guns. Peter Pan in South Central LA. Hamlet under the sea. Robinson Crusoe with ESP.

Have fun!

13 Comments on Two Birds with One Stone

  1. Great resource list–thank you!

  2. I have a book sort of like this, although it isn’t a mash up of really two books, it’s a video game and a book. Kingdom hearts meets Pendragon, I would say. Although the watches are how you get to the different dimensions and like Sora in kingdom hearts Riley the main character save’s the dimensions from even creatures called Shadow breakers that consist of shadows and can take over living beings. Each dimension has a different race on it, werewolves, talking tigers anything you can think of in all these dimensions that more then you can even count. So really it takes the idea of Sora saving the worlds and Pendragon traveling through gates when in reality the gate is the watch in my book.

  3. Ahh, gotta love those clichés. Nothing really ruins a story like that. “And they all lived happily ever after…” The reader usually picks up a story in hopes of finding a unique twist or new interpretation of things they already know they like– an archetype with a new flavor to it. I have long since lost count of how many otherwise enjoyable stories I have given up on because of how pathetically overused the descriptions and other certain devices were.
    As for mixing new archetypes, how about Huck Finn meets Batman? That could be interesting. Odd, but interesting.

    • That would be like the most awkward thing ever, but it would be interesting to read.

    • I agree with you, squid. I don’t like stories that are too predictable or too common.

      • Definitely agreed. I believe that the characters among characters shouldn’t be exactly modeled after the character in the cliche’. Like Squid said, it would be fun to put different “known” characters in the mix with “known” cliches’, if you are to put them. She also said archetypes with new flavors are interesting, but cliches’ are all flavors people know and love. Sometimes people get sick of the same food, but can’t resist to return to that well-known taste. It’s what’s served with that flavor that makes the plate.

  4. I very much dislike clichés, most of them are overused, people need variety in their writing not the same old sayings that we’ve been hearing forever. I find it better to make up your own saying in stories, originality is best.

  5. xavier (garrett) kelly | August 26, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Reply

    i like how you bring up twilight it is probably the first book to come to mind when someone bring up cliche. if it wasn’t so “Romeo and Juliet with fangs” as you put it, it would have been a much greater fantasy piece. but on the topic of cliches and archetypes, archetypes maybe be some of the harder things to create in writing wile cliches really are ” easy phrase[s]”

  6. The book I’m in the process of writing is in a small cross between BlueMoon and the Crank saga. Similar to BlueMoon, Emily falls in love but struggles to keep him and her family from falling apart, and like Crank, she has very strong demands that her friends won’t let her live down. I have found that it is by far the quickest way to discribe my book to someone rather than have to go through all the details.

  7. It’s really annoying when you hear somebody say something that’s been out of style for a long time. “Who says that anymore?” i would say. Just like you said, who even says “raining cats and dogs” anymore? For one thing it sounds lame in the story and another thing it’s just been said too much over and over. Lastly who in real life could say “it’s raining cats and dogs” without getting feedback like “what did you say??” or a confused “huh?”

  8. Jonathan Calzada | September 14, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Reply

    Thinking about it it’s true, stories are just on going copies of other stories. But then again you can do this but only using it as a influence, not a mirror like object. That and people just need new stories because they’re to cool for originals.

  9. Amber (Squirrel) Hynes | October 13, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Reply

    i really hate to say this, but sometimes i write stories that are cliche. i try to avoid it, but it just happens and it sucks, so i totally see where you’re coming from with this. and the whole idea of books copying each other is very true. its hard to be completely original…

  10. Cliches are easy to find in a lot of YA books. The book series, Evermore, is full of them.They can ruin even the best of stories and books. I hate to start reading a book and then realize I have already read a book just like it, but with different names for everything. It just makes reading it seem like a waste of time.

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