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Thread: The SolAARium: Discuss the craft of writing - Alphabetical Index in the 1st Post

  1. #821
    Imam Of The House in Imp. Off. Herbert West's Avatar
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    Coping with the feeling of cliché?

    I'm in a writers crisis (bah, I'm at best a word-thrower).

    I'm a very well read person, and I have a very good sense of grasping the point, the essence of things. (And I am not modest.) And this has turned a lot of things into, well, boredom. A lot of books are annoyingly trivial. Humans, in general, are annyingly easy to figure out and blatantly trivial.

    Having now set up myself as a misanthropic asocial egghead bored with the world, I have to ask you, fellow narrative writers, how do you cope with cliché?

    I have tried to write things again, and its very, very hard not to write something that seems like an overused trope watered down by masses of humans using it in the most ill-appropriate situations. I feel like everything that has to be said has been said (and written), and things that have been not said are left unspoken because human though, and thus human language is very, very unequipped for something as complex and many-layered as the universe.

    Okay, the point being: how do you write something that will not feel cliché?
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  2. #822
    GunslingAAR coz1's Avatar
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    I often feel the same way, HW. My favorite author is Vladimir Nabokov and it is difficult when I sit down and read his prose and then try and compare that with mine own. However, the drive is there to try. Often, just reading here helps to spur me on to something more creative than I tried before (whether I succeed or not is entirely another question.) If you ask Director, he'll tell you there is really only one story to tell. How's about that for battling cliche? I think there is some truth to it, however, and the fun is in the derivation - where people diverge, why and in what way? In the end, you must write something that satisfies you as a reader. Hopefully, it will satisfy someone else. And artists have been borrowing from previous artists for years - writers, film-makers, painters, etc, etc. Hopefully, one can find a way to put their own spin on it. You can never equal what another has done because everyone has a different style and a duplicate is no creation - you can only create on your own. And if you recognize a cliche, then you can try and avoid it. If you spot something that looks like one, then try and figure out another way to say it, another way to write it. In doing so, you begin to create yourself.
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  3. #823
    "Look behind you Mr Caesar !" Atlantic Friend's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Herbert West View Post
    Having now set up myself as a misanthropic asocial egghead bored with the world, I have to ask you, fellow narrative writers, how do you cope with cliché?
    Through-and-through clichés can spoil a book or a movie in an instant. The cynical private investigator who seems unfazed by the prospect of instant death and keeps throwing one-liners around, the jovial and harmless cop sidekick, the femme fatale out of her depth, the traitor who betrays without any single good motive, the villain who gloats and reveals his secret plan to the captured hero, they really can destroy a good story.

    Still, I think the devil is in the details. Some degree of cliché is necessary to set the drama in motion. Ruthless gangsters, ambitious politicians, damsels in distress, honest cops, they are useful clichés. They're not insufferable per se, it's rather the way they're brought into the story and developed within it that will make the clichémeter go crazy.

    Then again, I think clichés are useful to deceive the readers. It's like the old magic/shell game trick. I wave a hand in front of you and your attention focuses on it, and hey presto, you should have kept an eye on the other one.
    Set up a character as an apparent cliché, and then have him drop the mask later in the story. The honest cop has hidden motives, the pretty airhead really isn't that dumb or innocent, the bad guy pursues a noble goal through immoral means.

    Also, I think quite often clichés appear in a story when the Villain isn't good enough. Get a good villain, with enough brains and enough brawn, and it will make it more likely the rest of your characters/situations are original.
    Last edited by Atlantic Friend; 13-08-2009 at 22:26.

  4. #824
    Well put, Atlantic Friend.

    I think how a writer treats cliché also depends on how vérité he's trying to get. That is, how many conventions of fiction is he going to use?

    In most narrative stories, cliché should be used with caution. That doesn't mean that it should be avoided at all costs, as relentlessly averting or subverting every single trope is itself cliché and often the mark of an inexpert writer. Rather, a writer must always try to be aware of the clichés in his writing and make their use a conscious decision. And whenever a cliché is used, it should never be out of laziness.

    In stories that use fewer conventions of fiction -- usually history book AARs and some narrative AARs -- cliché can actually be used a little bit more often. Here, writers should strive for whatever is most "real" in the world of the story and, well, if that happens to include some clichés, that's just how it is. The family man who dies just before he is to be sent home, the incredible marksmanship of the farm-boy, the incompetent officer -- although each is a cliché, they are clichés inspired by very real archetypes. Writers have considerably more room to include these kinds of clichés -- as long as they don't let the characters and situations become defined by clichés so as to be boring and predictable.



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  5. #825
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    A cliche allows the writer to use shorthand - you may not have the space and time to fully develop a minor character, but with a few words you can sketch in a 'hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold' and get on with the important parts.

    But my favorite use of cliche is to subvert it - to give that good-hearted hooker a fondness for theft, or to reveal that the lonesome cowboy lawman is wanted for murder in another state...

    Cliches and stereotypes are sometimes necessary, but they should be used sparingly and for clearly-understood reasons.
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  6. #826
    Sergeant Cunobelinus54's Avatar
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    Great thread, very helpful.
    But I have a question: if I intend on starting an AAR, does someone have to be notified (like the moderators or etc.), or can I just start a thread in the relevant forum and begin posting updates?
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  7. #827
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cunobelinus54 View Post
    Great thread, very helpful.
    But I have a question: if I intend on starting an AAR, does someone have to be notified (like the moderators or etc.), or can I just start a thread in the relevant forum and begin posting updates?
    You can report fact that you started an AAR in appropriate librAARy thread, stickied to each AAR subforum, so that readers could easily find your work in the future.

  8. #828
    The Wishmaster Lighthearter's Avatar
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    <A man strides in, examines the place, then takes a book of matches and relights the dormant fire. He smiles at the warm glow, then blows some of the dust off of a nearby table.>

    Terribly sorry if this is a black act of necromancy I am performing here, but I have some writing questions I would greatly appreciate advice upon before I enter the world of publishing with my novel - while I still have time to polish it.

    And all personal reasons aside, this thread is far too good to leave in decay and disrepair! It must regain its former glory!

    Right, this is going to be quite general - description of characters. How much is too much? A typical character description of mine is this - the first paragraph of the book:

    Laiin stood stock-still, waiting for her opponent to make the first move. Her coppery brown eyes never strayed even as she subtly shifted from side to side, her locks of ruby-red hair firmly contained in a bun at the back of her head. Eight feet in front of her stood a man, face wrinkled with age, in a similar guard stance. Laiin was acutely aware that even she, at five foot nine, towered over him by an order of at least four inches. His snow-white beard, reaching to his waist, clashed dramatically with his neatly shaven head.

    I usually share what I consider the basics required to have a mental image of the character - hair color, eye color and height, but occasionally a few other remarks if they're important - but is it typically better to give more details - say providing more then general details about clothes, for example - about them and reinforce a character's appearance, or to be even sparser then I am to allow the audience to make their own image? Would either of them strengthen the above passage or others like it?

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  9. #829
    Field Marshal loki100's Avatar
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    (Just as a bit of context, we've had an exchange of PMs re this and agreed to put this into the public thread - this is too good a resource to be allowed to stay fallow for too long)

    For what its worth, I find that next to getting dialogue right, quick character description is the hardest part to any writing. Left to myself, I'm a bit of minimalist in this area, I like quick partial descriptors with powerfull images. So I'd reduce heavily to two/three really stand out elements viz:

    "Laiin stood stock-still, waiting for her opponent to make the first move. Her coppery brown eyes never strayed even as she looked down at her opponent though her attention was caught by his snow-white beard, reaching to his waist, clashing dramatically with his neatly shaven head."

    Thats not right either, but it tells me something about both (& both being the sort of image that stays in the mind) and about the relationship (height) between them? In effect there are three clear images - her eyes, his odd combo of beard/bald and the size difference between them.
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  10. #830
    Patron Saint of Suenik Iain Wilson's Avatar
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    (I too may have been dragged into this necromantic little trist through PM - is Lighthearter collecting Scots I wonder...)

    I know that the question was about "description", but I think what we're really chatting about here is the overall area of characterisation. It's a two step process to my mind (NOTE: this should be a fair indiciation to most right-thinking individuals that what I'm about to say isn't necessarily correct ) - an author can establish what a character looks like through his descriptive talents, but when it comes to really cementing who a character is he (or she!) has to rely on dialogue.

    I don't know if this is a reflection on my own limitations as an author or not, but indulging in too much detail denies the reader the pleasure of letting the character form in their mind's eye. Not to mention the fact that while you can be a master at description, if you are not able to distinguish between the personalities of different characters (and what better way to do this than through dialogue?) all you end up with is some beautifully described wooden automatons who will plod through your story mumbling in monotone to each other. In addiiton, too much description can come across as unnecessarily verbose, and this applies in general - not just to characters. When I was doing my Masters' at university I was writiing a paper on Hardy, and as I churned through his novels I'd find myself skipping large chunks thinking "Yes, yes. Another wonderful pastoral landscape. Ah! A town. Yes. Encroaching on the lovely pastoral landscape. Again. I get your point. You don't like industrialisation. Is this going to be in EVERY one of your books?"

    *ahem*

    I think what I'm saying is this, far better to concentrate on getting your characters personalities right, and having them explode into your readers minds than beating yourself up too much about description. If you can create engadging characters then your readers minds will be assemble how your characters look far more clearly than you will ever be able to describe them.
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  11. #831
    The Wishmaster Lighthearter's Avatar
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    But overall, the question becomes At what point does description change from scene-setting to encroaching on readers' own imaginations? Personally I draw that line quite swiftly if I'm reading - if I'm told very much more the the basics like height and hair and eyes and maybe one or two other important details in one sitting I tend to skim - but when they're my characters I want to share the full man or woman I have in my head with people. I suspect it's a question with no hard-and-fast answer, but hearing peoples' perspectives on it would be welcome.

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  12. #832
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    Sorry, Lighthearter. I kept meaning to respond and kept getting distracted. Let's see here:

    First, a disclaimer: I'm going to be intentionally a little rough with you, not because I think you did a job but just the opposite. I like what you wrote. We're now into fine details and 'nitpicking' rather than general principles.

    OK, one general principle: I'm with the others. Less is more here. You want to give me just enough to know what the score with and let my imagination run with it. You also want to build it into the action (which you did a good job of) so I can begin running the movie in my mind, rather than just describe the character.

    Alot depends on 'if I care' about the detail and where it's placed. I've never read Hardy and it sounds like that's a good thing. I have read Patrick O'Brian though, who could be very meticulous with his details. I could read his sea descriptions all day - they interested me, he wrote them well, and they tended to be bridges in scenes with more actions. His descriptions of botany and biology however bored me to the point I'd skip over them. J.R.R. Tolkien also tended to be too detailed for my taste: I do not care when the Mines of Moria were founded or why. I do care there's a huge balrog with a flaming whip chasing the group.

    Now, to your description. Since this is your opening, it needs to spark. It needs to hold my attention. You can't afford a single wasted word here.

    Personally, I think the hard numbers have to go. I do not need to know the man is eight feet in front of her. I do not care (as a reader) that she's 5'9" and he's at best 5'5". I care that he's in front of her, she's just over average height (assuming what we'd consider standard heights for humans)

    IF this man is not a main character but a throwaway, reduce his description significantly. Even if he is important, add bits later. If Laain is your main character then this paragraph belongs to her.

    Laiin stood in a guard stance waiting for her opponent to make the first move. Her copper eyes never strayed from his wizened face as she slowly shifted from side to side, her locks of red hair tied in a bun.

    I do not need to know what shade of copper or red.

    He stared/glared/frowned up at her, body crouched in a similar guard stance. His white waist-length beard swayed gently as he moved contrasting his dark eyes and shaven pate.

    If this is an exotic location like a dojo, you might want your first paragraph to be about that. Sometimes it's better to draw in the background if that would hook me into your story.
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  13. #833
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    Do any of you have any suggestions for writing in a history-book style?

    I am noticing that (whe writing) I tend to skip past the details of any wars that go on and head straight to the peace settlement. This is probably a relection of where my own interest lies. However I can't help feeling that some readers will have been wanting a little more conflict and a little less peace/politics.
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  14. #834
    Field Marshal loki100's Avatar
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    think thats even harder than a discussion about good character description. For myself, I read very little conventional Military History and own even less. What has always interested me is warfare in context and the politics/social dynamics/psychology involved. So a history book that was basically a military history would struggle to hold my attention (it could but it would have to be very interesting), a history book on the politics and dynamics around any conflict would. So in different ways, Myth's Italy magnum opus was fascinating as he used HOI3 as a vehicle to explore theories of military strategy and Gabor's Papacy AAR is great due to all the political mischief that is going on.

    This isn't to say I don't like a well written battle scene as they can really bring an event and narrative into focus, but for the most part I'll pass on the details of the actual campaigns before I'd pass on the politics and the human dynamics that frame military conflict.
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  15. #835
    The Wishmaster Lighthearter's Avatar
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    I don't agree with the previous comment. History AARs to me are more fun dealing with conflicts and the course of attacks and retreats and campaigns. For people and politics and social dynamics I prefer a narrative AAR - something that puts me on a similar personal level as the characters.

  16. #836
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    Well ... disagreement is good. But here's a practical example of what I mean. I'm just coming to the end of a very conventional Seven Years War gameplay aar using AGEOD's Rise of Prussia. Now its both a game and a time period that is set up to do a really neat History Book style treatment.

    So to do that justice I think you need two, possibly three layers. One is the in-game campaigning events rendered into a History Book style, with perhaps detailed campaign maps and at least a few detailed battle treatments. The second is the game engine presents the war outside Europe as a set of coded events, so this you could handle by wrapping those into a treatment that effectively just rewrites those events to fit the style & the in-game events. Now I think there is a third, and I don't think this is just a case of mixing history book with narrative styles, which is in part to start exploring why this war was waged at this time and the interactions between some characters.

    Just off the top of my head I can think of 4 such. One is to explore the dynamics between Bourbon France and Hapsburg Austria. They'd been intense rivals for 300 years, the last war between them was less than 20 years before the Seven Years War. So why this alliance now, and can some in-game events be explained/assigned to this characteristic? On the Anglo-Prussian side are two generals who'd fought each other in the 1745-6 Jacobite revolt in Scotland. James Keith was a Jacobite who was an exceptionally able commander for the Prussians, Cumberland (aka the butcher of Culloden) put down the revolt with all the expected brutality of the times. Now IRL they never campaigned in the same region, but they could in game and it would make a fascinating little subtext (to add to which there are Scottish battalions in both French and English service, why not explore what would happen if they had clashed?). There are then the various peace treaties, all of which are worth constructing a fictional dynamic around. Finally you have the events in Russia after Catherine II died and Peter IIIs brief reign.

    So its as ever a matter of taste, and there is clearly no right/wrong, nor is every conflict/game going to gain from adding to the military events, but as a reader and writer, I'd find reading a fictionalised account in part driven by the game events and in part driven by speculation on matters personal, economic, social and diplomatic particularly interesting.
    Last edited by loki100; 28-05-2011 at 20:29.
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  17. #837
    the Conqueror Peter Ebbesen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lighthearter View Post
    Right, this is going to be quite general - description of characters. How much is too much? A typical character description of mine is this - the first paragraph of the book:
    Okay, I'm a bit late in answering and I tend not to pull my punches so this may sound rough, but you asked for advice, so here goes.

    I'd say you've fallen into the classical beginner's mistake to which the solution is "show, don't tell". Now, there's also the other common error of showing everything where a concise description would do since showing requires a lot more writing and time (on both the writer's and reader's account), but that's a lesson for another time.

    Your introduction of Laiin is an example of how not to do it. Ideally, you'd want to grab the attention of the reader with your very first paragraphs and never let go. In practice, you begin a long-winded description full of adjectives to describe your character that is guaranteed to leave people yawning. Adjective-overload is a clear warning sign that showing might be preferable (not guaranteed, but a good warning).

    Does Laain have a small stature and is this important at this time? You are introducing her to us in medias res and there's probably an action scene coming up and you are failing to take advantage of it. The opportunities for showing us that she's taller than her opponent and that he's shorter than the average man are legion. Her hair-colour? WHO THE HELL CARES ABOUT HER HAIR COLOUR AT THIS TIME! She's about to fight some guy, for fun or real we don't know, though we expect to discover it pretty soon, but unless the fighting mechanics of your universe revolves around hair-colour you bloody well leave out that irrelevant detail and leave it for later. Is it important that he's 8 feet way rather than, say, 7 and a half feet? If not, don't be so precise unless there's a point to it (e.g. the character being abnormally good at estimating distances at a glance).

    It is quite all right to leave the reader to fill out the details as you get on with the action and then introduce the leftover details through the flow of your story later on. Heck, you could let a near hit rip out a few strains of her hair or something or have him converse with her using a nicknamed based on her hair colour if you really want us to know about the "ruby-red" hair at this point.

    In general, do you want to introduce your main character with height, eye-colour, hair-colour, hair-style, bust-size, and notes on special physical characteristics? That's fine, just don't do it in medias res in the setup for an action scene.

    ----

    Incidentally and teasingly, on a somewhat different topic I'm not sure how a beard can clash with a bald head wihout rigorous headbanging. Seriously, "clash" used in that sense usually denotes either a colour-mismatch or a style mismatch and being balm (shaven or not) with a beard is likely to strike most of your readers as entirely normal. A beard reaching the waist won't, but it doesn't clash with the absence of hair on the head since people don't expect beards to go together with non-baldness or the lack of beard with baldness.

    Just saying - it strikes me as awkward.
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