Nothing 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.