When I was studying for my MA in Creative Writing, a few years ago now, the characters in my fledgling novel weren’t allowed to nod. Nor were they allowed to sigh, smile or frown. My tutor banned these and many other stock reactions that spring so readily to the writer’s mind.
Have you ever noticed how frequently characters in novels nod? But how often do you actually see anyone nodding in real life? Seriously, nobody does!
These actions are the tools in the lazy writer’s toolbox. They’re what saves a writer from having to think up a more original, accurate and telling way of getting their characters to react. It’s often said that the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction, apart from the former being more character driven, is down to the quality of the writing. But what does quality mean? It doesn’t have to mean poetic or obtuse or experimental (although it can be). To my mind, quality means the triumph of invention and originality over laziness.
That’s not to say a writer must never use a stock phrase. In all things there has to be balance. Sometimes a simple nod will suffice and to run around in circles trying to avoid it will become distracting. A novel doesn’t have to be an exact replica of real life. In fact, it really oughtn’t to be. If you were to extract dialogue from real life, with all its hesitations and repetitions, it would be hell to read. But, the best writing resists falling back upon lazy, generic phrases that neither capture real life, nor inform us of what makes a character unique.
Literary writing is often the opposite of what you’re taught in English Language classes at school. At school, for example, you’re told to avoid writing he or she ‘said.’ You’re supposed to write she exclaimed, she gasped, she yelled. But a skilful writer will convey how a character says something simply by the words that they speak. There is no need for any description of how the words were delivered at all.
Similes earn you a lot of marks in your creative essay at school. In quality fiction, not so much. The problem with similes is that they are very difficult to do well. Too often they sound clunky and contrived and fail to add anything to the original idea. They tend to either simply repeat the idea using different words, or they’re so elaborate they bear no relation to the thing that’s being likened to at all.
Clichés are another obvious obstacle to good writing. The problem is what was once an original image or metaphor quickly becomes a cliché through over exposure. I’ve noticed, for example, that in a lot of contemporary novels the word pebble keeps appearing. My heart was a pebble. His love was a pebble… All writers are thieves to some degree, but we need to be careful not to steal what everyone else is stealing.
It may sound as if I’m a literary writer who produces nothing but the most exquisite prose. I’m not. At the moment I’m trying to write a thriller. Thrillers, like every other kind of writing, are hard to master. I read quite a lot of thrillers to see what does and doesn’t work. It is, of course, much, much easier to criticise others than to do a good job yourself. However, I have discovered one particular recurrent mechanism that I do find hugely annoying. It is this: the big reveal that is hinted at all the way through the book but withheld until the end for no other reason than to tease the reader. Ugh, I hate that. It’s so annoying. By the time the reveal arrives, nine times out of ten, I’ve already guessed it. And if I haven’t guessed it, I’m so sick of it being dangled in front of my nose, I don’t even care what it is any more.
In order to make my novel the best it can be, therefore, I am trying to avoid nods, similes, pebbles, and gratuitously withheld reveals.
Of course, many readers will be completely okay with these things, if they even notice they exist. I was talking to a police detective recently who said he couldn’t stand watching any kind of police procedural on TV. When I asked why, he said it was because they were so untrue to life. In what way, I asked. In that they get the crime solved and sewn up in no time at all, he said. To me that simply doesn’t matter. In fact, this makes them much more entertaining than if they adhered to reality. But each to their own. Writing, like reading, is a highly subjective matter. You need only adhere to what matters to you.