- When Gloria left me, she broke my heart.
Really? Your heart literally broke? What does this mean exactly? Beyond our understanding of the cliché itself, how can we empathise with this response, outside of correlating an experience where this might’ve occurred to us ourselves? That’s not our duty as readers, though – the author is meant to infuse us into every aspect of the character, so we experience exactly what they’re experiencing. That’s good writing. Clichés are shallow.
Now there are several words that have devolved to exist in the same strata. They perform a duty expediently yet, when misused, no longer have any resonance.
For example …
‘Suddenly’ has become a cliché in itself.
- Suddenly, a man jumped out with a knife.
It’s used to generate drama, but has now descended into the realms of melodrama, a word much more comfortable in a creative assignment for Year 7 English.
Look for it in whenever you’re reading. It’s become grossly overused, if not abused. If you’re going to use it, keep two things in mind:
- make sure that the action it’s connected to is sudden
- don’t overuse it.
Run a FIND in whatever you’re writing, and see how many times you’ve used ‘suddenly’ (or derivatives, e.g. ‘all of a sudden’). You’ll be surprised.
If you’re going to have a sudden action, see if you can communicate within the prose itself the suddenness of the action occurring, rather than relying on the use of ‘suddenly’. E.g.
- Suddenly, the door opened.
- The door crashed open.
Which is better? (And a combination of two is not the answer!)
Arguably, an even lazier word is this:
‘However’ is a formal word, better suited to nonfiction. But wherever it’s used, writers too often rely on it to change tact without needing to provide any sort of logical transition.
- The dog is humping the neighbour’s leg. However, there is a war going on overseas.
Excuse me? The only segue here is the ‘however’ allows us to jump from one subject to the other – that’s an important distinction in itself. It’s not from ‘one subject to the next’, as that implies there’s a logical progression in ideas. It’s two unconnected subjects. Yet the use of ‘however’ makes the crossover almost seem legitimate.
‘However’ can also be used to put forth an opposing idea.
- I believe grammar in English is important. However, some people holiday in the Himalayas.
Um, what? How did we get into the Himalayas from grammar? Lots of non fiction writers fall into this trap. They can explore one idea, then flip-flop onto another simply through the use of ‘however’, and most readers won’t question the narrative’s detour. They’ll accept the visual cue as a segue and just read on.
Again, as occurs with ‘suddenly’, it’s worth considering the way the prose itself progresses in expressing what it has to say. ‘However’ is a shortcut to get from one place to the next. It’s also another word that’s overused.
The final word:
How often have you heard this word used in your life? You never hear a parent chide a child, ‘Don’t you dare exclaim at me!’ or somebody tell a story where they use ‘exclaim’ (‘Oh, before I had a chance to exclaim, he’d stolen my car!’). It exists exclusively in writing, and even there, the bulk of its work is done as an attributor.
- ‘Don’t you dare use me,’ he exclaimed.
This is something we encounter frequently – a character exclaims, whilst the dialogue is punctuated as if it were everyday speech. Surely if somebody’s exclaiming, it’s worthy of an exclamation mark!
- ‘Don’t you dare use me!’ he exclaimed.
That’s befitting, isn’t it? But even with that being the case, doesn’t the existence of the exclamation mark make the attributor of ‘exclaimed’ redundant?
- ‘Don’t you dare use me!’ he said.
Isn’t that an obvious exclamation? What exactly is the point of exclaiming?
When you’re writing, consider the words you’re using, the roles they’re filling, and whether they have a meaningful purpose, or whether they’re placeholders allowing you to shortcut your way through prose.
P.S. In case you’re wondering, the bird picture has no relevance to this blog. I just like the picture.