Tag Archives: Description

Are cliches overused?

I feel like I’ve posted about this before, which – given the subject matter – would be somewhat embarrassing. But I’ve searched the archives and can’t find anything, so perhaps I’ve just thought it before…

When writing, and particularly when editing, one of thing I’m always on the look out for is use of clichés. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little phrases to characters and even entire plot-lines, and generally speaking they are bad things. Writing, surely, is about putting our words and sentences together in new and interesting ways – why read a poor copy of a classic when you could just go back and read the classic itself.

And yet, by definition, they crop up everywhere. They have their uses – spectacles and pencil skirt can tell us a lot about a cameo character without the writer or the reader having to distract themselves from the main story with a lengthy description, for example. And avoiding them can lead to tortuous and forced language which gives the reader far more pause than a simple cliché would do – a fast-paced action scene is not necessarily the time to get all flowery about how dark it was when “night” or “pitch” will fill the part.

In language at least, I actually think it’s easier to get novelty wrong than it is to get clichés wrong. Much like the mind passes over “said” as a speech attribution, but stumbles over more frilly versions, I think I would skim “dark as night” but I’ve definitely tripped over more exotic blacknesses.

However, for the most part, I think I’m on the side of the editors. Isn’t it nice to see something sparkling and new in your reading? Isn’t there a thrill – for both the writer and the reader – in finding the perfect new way to concisely deliver a prim woman or an unfathomable hole?

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A Writing Challenge – Tone of Voice

Who hasn’t either had or heard the argument: “It wasn’t what you said, it was your tone of voice”? Tone of voice is one of the most powerful communication tools we have in conversation. Words in themselves can mean a million things, but add tone of voice and there’s no mistaking the intention. That argument probably started because the other party said something apparently innocent but poisoned it with the barbs of emotion that tone of voice can add.

As I embark on the ship of parenthood, I’m struggling with tone of voice when I read aloud to Sebastian. I pick up a novel, and I start to read, but the stage directions always come after the lines. For example, here’s the latest passage in Rose Tremain’s “The Road Home”:

“Asylum-seeker, are you?”

He uttered these words as though they disgusted him, as though they made him want to bring up some of the food that had soured his breath.

Now, when I read the first line, I had no idea how to say it. The policeman character had only just stepped out onto the page, so I had no roadmap for whether he was a kindly chap or a cynical one; whether he was keen to help or ready to suspect. His only previous lines had been fairly chirpy: “Wake up, Sir. Police” and “Steady on! No tricks, thank you kindly. Up you get!” So it wasn’t until I had read this line that I discovered he was not a fan of asylum-seekers, not in the slightest bit inclined to help and probably a reader of the Daily Mail.

When we write, it is perfectly respectable to describe in this way. An ordinary adult reader (and let’s face it, Tremain probably doesn’t get read aloud to one-month-olds very often) can deal with the fact that they take in the words and then apply the tone after the fact.

But it’s worth thinking about. Writing has long been recognised for lacking the nuances of the spoken word – emails and letters can easily be misconstrued and writers have always looked for ways to indicate intent in a smooth and effortless manner which would be unnecessary if only there were some way to print tone of voice.

My own particular challenge is sarcasm. I use it a lot myself, and my characters use it too. And yet, I get readers who miss that, and who completely misread my stories because they think the sarcastic character is either stupid or weak.

I don’t have an answer. Tremain’s description of the policeman, for all that it fell too late to help Sebastian’s comprehension, is a pretty good example of how to show (not tell) the character’s emotions and tone of voice, but you don’t always want to break up dialogue with a lengthy description, especially if it’s quick-fire, as sarcastic repartee so often is. So, I’m still looking for a shorthand for certain tones – cynical, sardonic, frustrated, sympathetic … and, most of all, sarcastic.


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Friday Fictioneers – Far Afield

This week’s picture comes from Maggie Duncan, on Madison Woods’ site. There is something very British about the photo, but I have a feeling that’s more nostalgia in me than accurate geographical identification. I’d love to know where it’s taken though. It’s another landscape, and for me those are always harder than the close ups of something, so I thought I’d give you a taste of the longish story I’ve been wanting to write since the idea popped into my head recently. With luck, sometime I’ll have a chance to write the rest!

By way of background, you need to know that Piccolo is a cat who is trying to get home to his family. Which is another reason this picture made me want to write about him, because, as Maggie mentioned in her post, fog comes on little cat feet.

Far Afield

Piccolo batted a damp leaf from his nose and sniffed the air. He’d been dreaming of chasing the string bird around the bedroom with Dad, and the cold damp air around him came as a shock. It smelt strange – like spring and grass.

Peeking out from the bush, he felt a pang of loneliness. This place was nothing like home. There were no houses, no roads and the only sound was birds, too high to catch, in the branches above him. Ahead, the ground was invisible, blanketed in thick fog, dotted only with more trees, ghostly in their silhouettes.


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In my post, More Writing Games, here: http://wp.me/p1PeVl-1w, I described an exercise in writing from Anthony Burgess. Since description is my weak spot, I thought I’d go with the original version and describe a room. It turned into a bit of a story itself, but I hope you like it – comments are appreciated as always (good and especially bad ones). I was using page 1111 of my dictionary, as requested, and word 13 in particular. See if you can spot the page. Here we go…

The hotel room was dark and smelt faintly of prophylactics. I felt my stomach turn at the image that conjured up. The curtains were heavy blue velvet, I pulled them back to let some light into the room, but that just revealed the true squalor within. Mould was propagating wildly in one corner where the wall had a pronounced yaw inwards, and the ceiling was stained from water damage.

The decorations were strange, a propfan jutted out of the wall above the bed, as if the remains of a war time crash that noone had bothered to remove. The quiet design of the propeller the ultimate irony, since in the last few minutes the fan on the ceiling had already demonstrated a propensity to squeak, once in every slow, useless cycle.

“Your guest is joining you later, is he?” prompted the bellboy, hanging on the pronoun to emphasise his views on the prospect of two men sharing a double room. Clearly not a proponent of the Rainbow propaganda promulgated by the hotel, he virtually had “Prejudice” tattooed across his knuckles. He propped the door open and wheeled in our cases. I thought about withholding the bill I’d palmed earlier, but it seemed better to propitiate him, otherwise he’d only chalk it up to the colour of my skin and the propensity of black men to tip badly.

I pushed the bill into his hand and closed the door behind him. The room stank, the service stank. I was about ready to leave, but I couldn’t. There were no other hotels in town, no other rooms to be had for any money, and the funeral was starting in an hour. I propelled my brother’s case away from the door and sat down heavily on the bed.


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More Writing Games

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is 1st December. NaNoWriMo is over, I won, so did huge numbers of the WriMos I am proud to call friends. WOOHOO! Confetti! etc etc.

So now we’re back to the real world, and what better way to celebrate than with a game.

“What I often do when I have to, say, describe a room, is to take a page of a dictionary, any page at all, and see if with the words suggested by that one page in the dictionary I can build up a room, build up a scene. Nobody has noticed. … You’re really normally doing what nature does, you’re just making an entity out of the elements. I do recommend it to young writers.” Anthony Burgess

Well, it’s an idea, isn’t it. So here’s the game, with due credit to Mr Burgess. Take a dictionary (yes, a paper one, sometimes the old ways really are the best) and open a page at random. Then write a story, or a scene, or a description, whatever takes your fancy. The only rule is, you have to include at least 5, ideally ten, or more! words from that double page spread in Chambers, Websters, the Oxford English or Collins’ Gem in front of you. Definition words, mind, no sneaking in with “well, there’s a ‘the’ in this definition here” excuses.

I’ll try to do this exercise and post it next week. If anyone has a desperate desire to pick a page number my dictionary has 1654 pages. First come first served to give me a number. Otherwise, it’ll be random.

Off to search out room descriptions in Clockwork Orange now…


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