Murder at Cliché Manor 2: Revenge of the Stereotypes

DI Findlater turned to the attractive blonde lolling seductively in the doorway, whose ample chest threatened at any time to burst out of the impeccably tailored, tiny-waisted, blood-red designer jacket stretched to full capacity across it. 

‘Parker, don’t just stand there. Go do something useful.’

DC Denis Parker flashed a sultry look in Findlater’s direction before disappearing into the hallway with a smoky-voiced ‘Right you are then, Sir.’

Sergeant Webster glared after him.  Someone needs to explain the meaning of the word ‘plain’ to that guy,’ he growled, ‘as in plain-clothes detective.’

Maybe the maxim that there are only seven or eight plots in fiction, and everything else is simply a variation on a theme, is true. Likewise, there is a good reason that many of the clichés and stereotypes in genre fiction are so prevalent: they work well. Comedy often works by turning a stereotype or cliché on its head, whereas drama needs conflict. So enter the maverick loner detective with a drinking problem, a bad attitude to authority and a broken marriage. Yes, it’s a cliché, but with built-in conflict from the get-go!

However, accepting the limitations of a genre doesn’t mean a writer can sit back and lounge on their clichéd laurels. Colin Dexter’s detective Morse and Val McDermid’s psychiatrist, Tony Hill, are both loner mavericks, but there is a world of difference and individuality between them. Equally, there are considerable differences between, say, Patricia Cornwell’s pathologist, Kay Scarpetta and Kathy Reichs’s forensic anthropologist, Temperance Brennan.  In each case, the author has given their creation a unique background, setting and voice. The same holds true even when working within the confines of historical events or characters. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are wonderful examples of how an author can use a unique point of view and style to turn a stereotypical Tudor bad guy into a fascinating portrayal of an intelligent and complex man.

The key to avoiding clichés is to make clear choices for your character. What interests you about them? What makes them unique and individual in your view, even if the situation they are in, historical or otherwise, is a seemingly stereotypical one? What is it about their behaviour, their decisions and choices that differentiates them from all the other people in the same situation? Once you’ve decided what it is – that’s the angle to explore in your writing.

The same holds true for linguistic clichés and phrases. Where it is clear that your use of a particular cliché or phrase is intentional and a character choice, a reader is less likely to have a problem with it. You can also get away with more in dialogue because people often use clichés in everyday speech, but, please, always in moderation: you don’t want to over-spice the stew. However, be very wary of randomly sprinkled clichés and well-worn phrases in the actual body of the narrative: you can almost certainly be guaranteed that that’s where they will come across as lazy or unimaginative.

Murder at Cliché Manor

It was a dark and stormy night, and the victim lay sprawled across the library floor like a worn-out phrase. DI Findlater cut an impressive figure: tall, dark and handsome, his aristocratic features silhouetted in the flickering of the gas lamp above his head.  

So, what have we got then, Sergeant?’ he shouted, trying to make himself heard over the whistling wind and rattling windowpanes.

Sergeant Webster pulled a dog-eared notebook out of his shabby coat pocket and grumbled loudly. He was like a bear with a sore head ever since his wife had left him due to his workaholic nature and heavy drinking. And he was not happy to be back in the crumbling old mansion. 

‘It’s the same all over again, Guv,’ he replied. ‘Just like last week’s case: Totally Unimaginative. Only this time, the deceased’s name is Overused. Completely Overused.’  

How do you like the opening section of my new opus? Great, innit? It’s clear, with gothic ambiance and lots of information about the main characters from the offset. So why is everyone sniggering? What do you mean, it’s full of clichés? Of course it is. That’s the whole point.

Or, as Sherlock Holmes might say in one of his more flippant moments, ‘I rest my case.’

As you can see from the above, clichés work on two levels – in the choice of language and in the creative choices such as character, setting and plot.

The problem with linguistic clichés is that they are victims of their own success. They are pithy and precise, leaving no room for ambiguity: perfect shorthand to get meaning across quickly and clearly, which is why they are so useful in everyday speech. The downside is that they are completely unoriginal. And therein, as Hamlet would say, lies the rub. Clarity is vital for communication, but most readers (and writers) are looking for a little more.

Clichés and stereotypes such as the maverick cop, the tall, dark, handsome stranger, the mysterious gothic mansion  and the flashy Manhattan penthouse, turn up regularly in fiction and film and, as with their linguistic cousins, it is usually a case of ‘familiarity breeding contempt’.

The worst effect of the cliché is that it deadens originality and spoils a writer’s unique voice. Everything you write should be uniquely yours – readers will clamour time and time again for your maverick cop as long as she or he doesn’t sound and look the same as fifty others. So, use clichés and genre tropes sparingly, if at all. Don’t allow your prose become boring and unimaginative. Give your characters an original voice and keep your readers hooked.

Building a Character: What kind of animal am I?

No, I’m not going crazy. Figuring out what kind of animal your character might be is a basic acting exercise familiar to theatre actors, and it can be a useful character building tool for authors also. Basically, actors use ‘animal work’ to explore the essence of a character. The trick is to progress beyond the simple representation of roaring, mewing or squeaking, beyond even the clichés – ‘wily as a fox’, ‘quiet as a mouse’ or ‘greedy as a pig’ – to an internalization which will give a fully rounded and nuanced physicality recognizable (albeit often on a subconscious level) by an audience.

So using an animal reference can be a great way of getting a quick handle on a character, either in your own mind or in the mind of your reader.  Like a form of visual shorthand.

With his dull brown hair, large eyes and perpetually twitching nose, Mr Doulton resembled a rather dim-witted mouse, but Hannah soon found to her cost that his personality was pure ferret, and nasty, bad-tempered ferret at that.’

Two sides to every animal 

References to animals have powerful connotations and it is these connotations (for good or bad) that can be utilized by writers and actors alike.

Take the pig, for example.  Even when used positively, there is an underlying sense of uncontrolled appetite about them that can be exploited.

‘Hannah could barely hide her laughter. The fact was that Mr Blower had all the appearance of a rather jolly pig stuffed into an expensively-tailored suit.’ 

Of course, you don’t necessarily need the full animal – you can still work from the basic pig image, but highlight certain aspects with equally powerful effect.

Mr Blower was a short, rotund man with little, piggy eyes and ludicrously tiny feet.’ 

or

‘Mr Blower’s hair was coarse and blonde, bristling to a peak on top of his head. His nose was snub and the corners of his mouth turned upwards in a perpetual porcine grin.’

Obviously, you need to use animal references wisely and sparingly, otherwise your play or novel will begin to resemble some form of bizarre humanoid barnyard or an exotic zoo with an Orwellian theme. The whole point is, of course, to get the writer or actor’s imagination working beyond the obvious: to look for and think about physical nuances which not only set each character apart from the others, but also give an indication of what makes them tick.

Point of View 2: Limitation or opportunity?

You might think that choosing one character as the viewpoint character and sticking to them would solve any POV problems. Not necessarily. For example, if your first person or third person limited narrator doesn’t actually witness an important event in the story, then he or she can’t describe it.

Of course, in theory, you could use another character to tell that part of the story, but one of the main rules for POV is that it should be consistent. So if most of your story so far has been seen only through the eyes of one character, switching POV at this late stage may seriously disturb your reader. At the very least it will break their connection with the first character which has been building for most of the book and, once broken, there is no guarantee you will get it back again.

Jane 003Imagine, for example, if Jane Austen had discarded Elizabeth Bennett’s POV following Lydia’s elopement with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice and sent us galloping off to London with Mr Darcy instead. Apart from the consternation of finding ourselves suddenly flung into the intimate company of a man seen to this point only through Lizzie’s eyes, we would miss all the tension, irritation, anxiety and feelings of helplessness that our heroine goes through during her long wait for news in Longbourn. The advantage of all this soul-searching not only adds considerably to the reader’s experience of Elizabeth Bennett’s character, but also ups the ante for the moment when she learns the truth about Darcy’s role in rescuing her sister. And who better to tell Lizzie about Darcy’s involvement, but silly, indiscreet Lydia? A delicious combination of plot point and character moment.

If your narrator finds themselves in a similar situation, you do what writers have done for centuries: you get creative. You have your viewpoint character talk to people, overhear conversations, read letters, newspaper reports, books, secret diaries or files (or their modern-day technological equivalents), basically whatever it takes to get the information the reader needs.

Sun 001But no Deus ex machina, please. This Latin term meaning ‘god from a machine’, refers primarily to the Greek tragedy penchant for having gods ascend or descend miraculously in mechanical stage devices (hence the ‘machina’) at the end of plays to provide improbably contrived resolutions to unsolvable situations. Please do keep your POV solutions within the context and internal logic of your viewpoint character and the world of your story.

Most of all, you should view the limitations of a narrator choice not as a downside, but as a virtue and a truly wonderful opportunity to build up oodles of character, atmosphere, tension and plot. What’s not to like?

Point of View 1: Whose story is it, anyway?

Choosing a point of view (POV) for your book is probably one of the most important decisions you will make as a writer. Why? Because in choosing to tell the story through the eyes of a particular character, you are also determining the reader’s journey through the book.

Harry Potter 002Think about it. The Harry Potter series of books would have been very different had they been told from the point of view of Hermione, Dumbledore or even Lord Voldemort. Well, they wouldn’t be Harry Potter books for a start!

Of course, choosing your viewpoint character is only first step. You will also have to decide the narration point of view. Second person narrative (you) is very rare, so the most common choice is between first person (I, we) or third person (he, she, it) narrative. Next, you will need to choose between subjective narration (inside a character’s head and describing their feelings or thoughts), or objective narration (staying out of people’s heads and reporting only what you see)? Finally, you will need to decide whether your narrator’s point of view is limited (knowing everything there is to know from that character’s POV, but limited to that character) or are they omniscient (with an all encompassing knowledge of all characters, times and places).

What effect does a particular narrative point of view have on the reader’s experience of your novel?

Viewing a story through the eyes of a first person narrator, either observing or participating in the action, connects the reader directly with the narrator and imbues the narrative with the immediacy and energy of an eyewitness account (for example, Raymond Chandler’s gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, in The Big Sleep).

Ray Chandler 002A third person narrative puts more distance between the narrator and the story; the narrator is a not a character in the story but provides a bridge between the character and the reader. This still allows the reader to engage with the character, but allows the author to manipulate the narrative without interfering with the character’s viewpoint (the Harry Potter series – told from Harry’s point of view, third person narration limited).

So whose point of view is best for your story? That is a question only you can answer and exploring points of view can sometimes be what your first (and possibly second, third and fourth) draft is all about, as you try to figure out who is telling your story and why. So, if your novel is stuck in a rut and is refusing to go where you want it to go, maybe you should look at who’s telling the story. Just as in life itself, a completely new point of view or perspective can sometimes transform an old tale into a wholly new experience.

This wood’d be great if it weren’t for those pesky trees: Critique v Edit

Immersing yourself wholly in your story and characters is one of the true pleasures of writing, but stepping away from the world of your book to find the objectivity you need to move it on to the next stage can be more difficult. If you do find yourself caught in this ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ situation, having your manuscript critiqued or edited can be of tremendous benefit.

There are many different types of critiques and assessments on offer from established authors, literary agents and editors. Some offer straightforward critiques, while others offer manuscript assessments which are substantive edits in all but name, so you will need to consider each service carefully before deciding which one is right for you.

Straightforward critiques can be very useful in giving an author an excellent general overview of what is working or not working in their manuscript and they are usually cheaper than a full substantive edit. However, this type of review doesn’t suit everyone.  For many, it simply increases the frustration. As one writer put it ‘Now I know exactly what the problems are, but I still don’t know how to fix them. Let’s face it, if I knew that already, they wouldn’t have been there in the first place!’

So, if  you are trying to decide between a critique or substantive edit, it is probably worth looking at the sort of comments you’ve been getting from friends or writing group colleagues so far. Are there recurring patterns of problems cropping up? Are the comments hinting at a major problem (say, for example, your main character is not working) and you have no idea how to sort it out?

Heart writing 001If you do find yourself in this distressing position, then a full substantive edit could well be the way forward, and though more expensive in the short-term, it could prove much better value for money in the long-term, if it helps you avoid some of those irritating manuscript problems in the future.

For more details on substantive (structural) editing, copy-editing and manuscript critiques, check out Book Nanny’s website at www.booknannyfictioneditor.com.

Substantive Edits: The Heart of the Matter

DSC00093‘Substance’ is defined as the most important part or the real or essential meaning of something, which, in my opinion, pretty much sums up the essence of a substantive edit. (Just to muddy the waters, for some editors, substantive editing is similar to copy-editing, but for me, it is a synonym for structural or content editing.) It deals with a book’s characters, plot, themes, structure, pace and meaning. It deals with all those things an author knows instinctively are not working as well as they should be, but can’t quite put their finger on, and it deals with some of the things that authors feel are working wonderfully, but which are not being communicated properly to a reader.

Why and what if 001In the first instance, a substantive editor will use their professional skills to identify and articulate any problems with the content, substance or structure of your manuscript. Are the characters believable? Why did a character do x instead of y? Why didn’t they do z? Why does that plot twist feel contrived? Is the pace too slow, too fast or just right? Is the structure of the book enhancing or hindering the storytelling? Is the narrative holding the reader’s interest through to the end? Is your thriller thrilling? Is your fantasy fantastic? Does your romance sparkle?

Which leads us to the other essential function of a substantive editor: not simply to critique or review a manuscript, but to assist an author to resolve any problems arising from the review. By asking pertinent questions, challenging assumptions and using their skills and experience to suggest possible solutions, a substantive editor can open the discussion for a writer. The right comment can illuminate blind spots and send an author along a fresh path of discovery, revealing new and exciting possibilities for a novel or short story.

Heart writing 001In summary, a good substantive editor can be a wonderful resource. She or he can help you to a better understanding of exactly how your book is communicating with readers (which is often not the way you think it is!). Of course, you are at liberty to accept or reject editorial suggestions or comments at all times, but you should remember that your editor is on your side. If he or she challenges you as a writer, it is only to inspire you to find the best solutions to your manuscript problems.

For more details on substantive (structural) editing, copy-editing and manuscript critiques, check out Book Nanny’s website at www.booknannyfictioneditor.com.