If you aren’t interested in my update, skip to the bottom for a writing prompt.
As any readers who have been checking in regularly have probably noticed, I’ve been a little behind on posting these Weekly Writing Memos for the last few months. Between picking up new jobs, constant traveling, and a big move to Los Angeles from Michigan, it’s just been a struggle to keep up. Starting in December I am also going to be embarking on a project involving studying the horror film genre, as well as some new work as a part-time assistant editor for a small publishing company.
With my increasingly complicated schedule, this is going to have to be my last Weekly Writing Memo post for a while. Instead, I’m going to be cutting back to monthly memos and the first post will be sometime in December. I’ll still be doing other guests posts now and then to fill in for Kaye when needed, and I’ll hopefully be posting more on my blog as well. If you have questions, or if just miss me dearly, feel free to contact me at my blog Author the World or on my AtW Facebook page. For my final Weekly Writing Memo, I thought I would go with a writing prompt to leave you all feeling inspired (hopefully).
Writing Prompt – The Breakfast Fight
You have a character in a restaurant. They’re eating breakfast. Start with the restaurant. What kind of place is it? What kind of tables does it have? What kind of waiters or waitresses? What kind of clientele?
Now go to your character. Who are they? What kind of mood are they in? They can start alone at the table but they can’t stay that way. Your character is about to get in an argument. Do they know it yet, or will it be a surprise?
Before the argument starts your character’s breakfast arrives. What are they eating? Is it actually breakfast time? How are they eating it?
Once everything’s in place—the breakfast, the characters—it’s time to start the fight. Have your character continue eating throughout the argument. Try to keep the characters from making the argument into a big scene for as long as possible.
When the fight ends, does your character take out his anger on anyone else? Does he snap at the waitress, or forget to leave her a tip? Does he finish his food or lose his appetite?
Where does your character go next? How will he resolve the conflict? See where the argument takes you from there. Where there’s a conflict, there’s often a story, so follow it. If you decide you don’t like the characters in the argument, try writing it from the waitress’s or another diner’s perspective. Explore the scene and the people in it, and see where the writing leads you.
Everyone always wants to know the big secret for how to write. They want the shortcuts, and the formulas, and the rules, but while those things may give you the illusion of a solution, they’re not the real answer. Shortcuts, rules, and formulas for writing can be great and useful, but in the long run, they limit your abilities as a writer. Knowing the rules can be a good foundation, but personally, I believe that it can’t be all you know. While everyone has a different theory about the best way to learn to write, there are a few “tricks” that almost everyone agrees on.
It amazes me the number of writers, screenwriters or fiction writers, who loudly proclaim how little they read or how much they hate reading in general. Whatever your chosen medium, you should be reading it and absorbing it as much as possible. As a screenwriter, reading scripts can help you learn techniques for telling a story in script format, succinct characterization, how to establish setting and many other things. As a fiction writer, reading novels and short stories can help you learn much the same. The more you immerse yourself in what you want to create, the more natural it will be when you begin writing the material yourself. Everything you read, whether you realize it or not, is integrated into your pre-existing knowledge and expands the “tools” you have at your disposal for writing.
A great example of this that works for most people is something like grammar – if you read a lot, you will gradually pick up grammar rules and standards that you don’t even know you know. Think of every sentence you write. Do you specifically analyze the sentence structure and whether it is grammatically correct, or can you read it and know it “sounds” or “feels” right? Many people who have learned grammar through reading have this ability, where they can correct a grammatically incorrect sentence because the proper format has been ingrained in them through reading, but they can’t explain how the sentence was incorrect.
Learning story and writing works similarly in some ways. If you read enough of the medium you want to write, you will start to build up your ability to recognize what is standard, what is abnormal, and you may even start to recognize typical story structures and character archetypes. You’ll also be able to recognize when a writer does something unusual, and then you can begin to break it down and figure out what they did and why.
This next step is one that I think is critical in learning to write. While reading as much of your preferred medium is the first step, analyzing what you’re reading is the next. Forcing yourself to think critically about what you’re reading is how you can make it easier for yourself to recognize issues in your own work. Whenever you’re reading, ask yourself what is working for you and what isn’t. Then take things one step further and ask yourself why it isn’t working. If you can break down why something isn’t working, then when you encounter it in your own writing you’ll be able to fix it. Every piece of writing has good and bad to it, and learning to identify both in the works you read will help you figure out things you may want to emulate in your writing, as well as things you probably want to avoid.
The most obvious way to learn to write is by doing. So many writers constantly research how to write, or talk about writing, or dream about writing, but never actually get to the writing part. Writing takes practice, and the more you do it the more you’ll improve. Personally, I think the best way to improve is to constantly push yourself to try new styles and techniques of writing. When I was first starting out I embarked on a 365-day project to write a short story a day for a year. I did this because I wanted to really buckle down and explore my writing so I could improve. I know everyone doesn’t have the time to do something like that, but I do think the most valuable thing I learned from doing it was to try new styles of writing. By trying different styles, genres, techniques, and story structures, you become familiar with them and add them to your “toolbox” of abilities. If you understand how they work, then when you need them in a story you’ll easily be able to work them in. I also think it’s useful because just knowing about the various techniques broadens your abilities when you’re writing. It’s easier to figure out how to tell a story in the best way if you know 100 different methods than it is if you only know 2.
Mentors and Other Writers
Having a mentor can mean joining an MFA program, finding someone in the industry willing to advise you, or finding a workshop group or another writer to get advice from. The important aspect is to find other writers who you can share your work with and get feedback. Ultimately, I think writing stops progressing at a certain point without feedback, so you have to decide what you are looking for and where you can find it. Some people luck into a mentor and find the feedback and guidance that way, but others have to seek out that feedback in their own ways.
I’ve done workshops, worked with other writers, and been in an MFA program, and I think they all have their own benefits depending on what suits you personally. Workshop groups can be great because you get a huge variety of voices on a piece of writing and you can learn a lot about it. They can also be negative, however, because some workshops devolve into a hive mind and are no longer helpful. The problem is, you usually don’t know how helpful the group is until you get there, but the beauty is they usually don’t last long so you can always find another one if needed.
For some, an MFA program is a ridiculous waste of money and gets you nowhere, but I personally found it incredibly helpful because it fit what I was looking for. I did a low-residency MFA program at Western State Colorado University where I studied both genre fiction and screenwriting. I choose my MFA because the focus was on genre fiction rather than literary fiction (I already had a degree in literary fiction), and because the professors in the program were all people actively working in the industries they were teaching about. I also chose to continue studying writing in an MFA program because I wanted to learn as much about writing as I could, as quickly as possible, and an intensive 2-year program would give me that boost to help me write better and make connections.
Ultimately, whether you choose an MFA program, a workshop, or a mentor, it’s all about research and knowing yourself. What method do you learn best? Who are the teachers or writers you’ll be working with? What may the teach you? All that being said, the key to this is finding someone, somewhere, who you can connect with on your writing and learn from. If you have a mentor, or a writing group, or an MFA program that does this, that’s awesome, but the key is getting your work seen and getting a reaction. Writing is meant to be shared, and having a “safe” group to share it with before you go public can be pivotal in your writings’ success.
There are a lot of other tips and tricks you’ll see about how to perfect your writing and become a master, but ultimately they all boil down to these four things: Read what you want to write; Study it, analyze it, and tear it apart until you understand how the writing succeeds and how it doesn’t; Write as much as you can and practice, experiment, and repeat; and find someone to share your work with that you can trust, that you can learn from, and that you can get feedback from. It takes time, and a lot of work, but your writing will show that it’s worth it in the end.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays and shares an occasional guest review on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
I’m not someone who is particularly a fan of movies that are more about being artistically beautiful than having a solid plot, but after seeing The Neon Demon claimed to be horror, and several friends recommending it to me, I knew I had to see it. A great movie to me is one you can get lost in, either because of the plot, or the characters, or the setting/world, or even because it’s so visually stunning that you just want to stare and don’t care what’s happening. I wasn’t sure about The Neon Demon from the few trailers I saw beforehand, but it looked like it had potential so I decided to check it out despite it not being my typical choice of movie.
The Neon Demon is a movie that has so much about it that is so brilliantly, beautifully, and boldly done that it’s impressive. I could go on for a long while about some of the amazing craftsmanship that went into this movie (and I will below), but I felt like the movie also had one amazingly large fault—its plot. As I said above, a great movie for me is one I can get lost in, and while I can appreciate a lot of the talent, craftsmanship, and just pure artistic awesomeness of this movie, I couldn’t get lost in it for several reasons. I know I am not the target audience for this style of movie so I don’t fault it in the least, but I do want to discuss the things that I loved individually, as well as the things that kept me from loving the movie as a whole.
Cinematography and Sound
I am pretty sure that at least 90% of the shots in this film could be captured into a still frame picture and hung on a wall somewhere as art without question. It’s beautiful, and scene by scene. It’s captivating in that you want to look at it. The balance of colors and costumes, makeup and posing, works so well throughout that it really is enticing to look at even amidst the gore and violence. The opening shot of Elle Fanning as Jessie laying “dead” on the couch immediately has you intrigued because of the surprising prettiness of it all. You don’t know whether it’s real or a photo shoot and you can’t look away. The trend of that alluring beauty carries throughout the film, and it fits well given The Neon Demon’s themes of narcissism and vanity.
Right along with the cinematography was the sound throughout the film. The music used worked incredibly well to create these intense moments during scenes, but what I loved just as much was the use of silence. There are these intense moments where the silence is distinct, and it makes you focus even more on what you’re seeing. Many films or shows don’t use silence in a noticeable way and there’s always some kind of sound going on, but The Neon Demon embraced it at times to heighten moments such as the scene where Elle Fanning is at her first “real” photo shoot. I also appreciated the silences between characters in dialogue because, while they were long at times, I felt like they were used at appropriate moments for emphasis on specific elements or events.
The other major thing I have to say I enjoyed in this film is that I felt like every actor was captivating in their own way. The characters themselves may have had some flaws in their development (or lack of), but the actors who played them were amazing. Elle Fanning managed to walk that mysterious line of whether her character was predator or prey perfectly, and Jena Malone as Ruby was simultaneously disturbing yet sympathetic. Surprisingly, though, was the fact that Keanu Reeves almost stole the show. It’s not surprising because of who he is—he’s had plenty of great performances—but it’s surprising because of his minimal amount of screen time. Maybe it was just me, but every time he was on screen I felt like he stole the show. Some of it could be that his character was the most physically expressive of them all, and the most distinct personality-wise of all the characters, but I think a huge portion of it just has to be Keanu Reeves as an actor and his abilities.
As shown above, so much about this movie was great and worked incredibly well. I think the first area things really faltered for me was the flow. As I said before, if I’m going to get lost in a movie I have to have something to get lost in. For The Neon Demon, the most likely element for that would have been the pure beauty of it all, but the flow kept that from happening for me. While almost every shot was stunning and perfectly crafted, the flow between shots wasn’t always coherent of consistent. Just as I was being lured in by the imagery and about to stop caring about the plot, the tone or the story thread would abruptly shift and throw me out, leaving me wondering what the heck was going on. A great example of this is when Keanu Reeves’ character breaks into Elle’s room during the dream/vision sequence. At that point, the film’s tone and pacing shifted abruptly changing everything. We are in this vain and edgy world of modeling for 2/3rds of the movie and then suddenly we have potential rapes, necrophilia, murder, and cannibalism.
This is the real area that is the main flaw of the film. There isn’t much of a plot built up other than the idea of a young, new girl in town getting into the modeling industry and being preyed upon by others in LA who want something from her. I could handle that as a plot if that’s all it was, but there are so many elements in it that seem to lead somewhere only to be dropped away and forgotten, never explained, or not fully utilized. Because there are all these little threads and elements that are thrown in for either artistic pizzazz or random impulse, and because the main plot is so sparse, things get muddled.
An example of the random plot elements are things like the mountain lion appearing in Elle Fanning’s room. It is really used as an excuse to give Keanu Reeves’ character more screen time and to give her “boyfriend” and excuse to go pay off her debt and be her lapdog. In general, though, the whole set-up of the mountain lion randomly getting into her bedroom just seems weird, and like it’s going to be some kind of plot line later that is explained but never is. I did get the sense that it was supposed to sort of be symbolic that there are predators everywhere she looks lurking in the shadows for her, but that was obvious from the moment Jena Malone’s character laid eyes on Elle Fanning in the first scene and the film didn’t need an actual mountain lion to nail the point home. If the film just had the straight simple plot without the random side unexplained elements, like the mountain lion scene or the scene where Jena Malone’s character seemingly gives birth after eating Elle (which was also never really explained or returned to), then I think it would have been much better off.
Overall, while there was so much brilliance to The Neon Demon and some truly amazing craftsmanship that made me want to love it, it was hard to do so when I was kept from being immersed in it. I could go on for a long while about different aspects of this film, but instead, I’ll end with a final thought I had when thinking about what to write here. The Neon Demon is primarily about beauty, vanity, and narcissism, and the film itself manages to be narcissistic. The film is so focused on being beautiful in every moment that it forgot to add real depth. Some could argue that the metaphor and symbolism of the film could be considered depth in place of a plot, but I’m not so sure because so much of that symbolism was not subtle.
Ultimately, whatever I think about the plot or flow, the film is definitely worth watching for anyone who appreciates cinematography, unusual art, or the just plain odd. I can almost guarantee you’ll be asking yourself “What the **** is going on?” at least once during the film, but I can also almost guarantee you’ll find yourself entranced by the beauty of some of the camera shots and scenes. Just keep in mind it does get pretty dark, and as mentioned above there are scenes of murder, necrophilia, and cannibalism, so it’s definitely not for everyone.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays and shares an occasional guest review on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
The first word that came to mind after seeing Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was peculiar. The movie is peculiar. I went into the film knowing next to nothing about it. I haven’t read the book, I think I may have seen a trailer at some point but don’t really remember it, and I hadn’t looked into the story at all. All I knew about the film was that it was directed by Tim Burton, it was based on a book, and it was about some kind of school for gifted kids.
I am a huge fan of fantasy films, and I love Tim Burton’s work, so I was super excited to see what this movie had in store for me. That being said, by the end of the film I couldn’t quite put my finger on how I felt about it, other than that one word I mentioned above—peculiar. The film is just peculiar. It’s beautifully shot, and the actors, especially Eva Green, do a wonderful job, but the film didn’t leave me feeling satisfied. It left me with a lot of questions, and a few complaints.
Visuals and World
I like starting by talking about something I liked, and this film was visually beautiful. It had some great shots, and everything from the camera angles to the clothing was spot on for me. The style and artistic elements of Tim Burton’s films are always one of my favorite parts, and this film was no exception. The one thing that truly kept me hooked throughout was the visual element, and just the fact that I was enjoying looking at the film.
The other element I really liked was just the concept of the world. I loved the idea of Jake traveling through the time loops at the end, working his way back to the peculiars. I’m not sure I have a clear idea of how it would work, but I do think I got enough of a sense that it was believable. The details they gave at the end as well were just enough to create this sort of romanticized image of his journey back to the group without extending the final act unnecessarily, which was perfect.
I think the biggest downfall for me in the film was the fact that the real goal and conflict of the story took more than an hour to get to. I know because I looked at my watch when they finally started discussing Samuel L Jackson’s character and why they had to stop him. I don’t mind a long movie, and I don’t mind giving the plot time to build and unfold, but this film felt like it just took too long. Yes, the visual elements of the movie were stunning and wonderful, and it was a fascinating world to get lost in, but I wish we could have got lost in it while the plot was moving forward.
From the moment Jake first sees Samuel L Jackson’s character outside his grandfather’s house to the moment we finally learn he’s the antagonist almost an hour had passed. I usually have a good memory for details in a story, but by this point in the film I had almost forgotten that Jackson was in it and I was mostly just trying to figure out where the story was going. I feel like part of the problem that made the story seem like it was standing still was that Jake’s goal in the story initially was not to find out what happened to his grandfather, it was to see if his grandfather told the truth. The moment Jake arrives at Miss Peregrine’s we know that he was and then Jake has no real goal, no conflict. Yes, there’s still some information he can find, but he doesn’t actively seek it.
If there had been slight more focus on the thing that killed his grandfather, and more determination behind Jake’s search for answers, I think the time it took to get to the plot wouldn’t have been as bad, but it still went on too long. Getting lost in the world was great, but it felt like the plot paused for a short period of time while we got immersed in the world. Instead, entering the new world should have boosted the plot into action.
The one thing that really surprised me about this film was that there were three big plot elements that I felt were too big to have been missed. The first is a simple one—Jake’s parents. I love Chris O’Dowd, but the parents disappear from the story when they’re there at all. I guess I could buy the whole impulsive trip across the world for the story, but once they get there the dad becomes almost a burden to the plot. Instead of being a smooth element in the story, a problem Jake has to work around to get where he wants to go, it feels like the dad is forced into the story in a clunky way that makes it completely obvious that he’s supposed to be in the way of Jake’s goal. It’s never more obvious that the dad doesn’t fit in the story then at the end—he doesn’t even get a proper wrap up of his plotline! While I think Chris O’Dowd played the role beautifully, and he always makes me laugh, his character never comes back into the story at all, making it feel like the whole plotline shouldn’t have been in the movie.
The second thing that surprised me is the reveal of the twin’s powers at the end. Throughout the film I wondered about the two of them as they were the only ones to not have their powers clearly shown or mentioned (unless I missed the first mention). At the end when their masks are lifted and the woman turns to stone, it immediately made me think two things. 1. Oh, that’s cool. 2. Wait, why didn’t they just do that to Samuel L Jackson in the house when he first came into the time loop? Their powers defeat the whole movie.
If we had learned about their powers earlier and there was some kind of explanation about why they couldn’t use them all the time—such as on Jackson’s character—it would have ruined the reveal, but it would have kept the sequence of events justifiable. By not having this, we got the cool reveal of their powers at the end, but it makes all the other characters look stupid. The twins could have dropped into the pit with all the evil people and turned them all to stone. They could have done it the first time they saw Jackson. They could have followed Jake downstairs when he goes to rescue the birds and done it then. Not justifying the lack of use of their powers creates a huge plot hole.
Overall, I did enjoy Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children despite the flaws. As I said above, visually it’s just a fun movie to watch, and seeing Eva Green embody Miss Peregrine was fabulous. She really is wonderful in the role. The plot holes and issues mentioned above are just things that made the movie go from great to just okay for me. I’ll have to watch it again at some point to see if there’s something I missed regarding the twins or the father, but overall I think the first word that came to mind when watching the movie is the right one. It really is peculiar. It’s fascinating, and alluring, and I wanted to love it, but I just couldn’t get lost in it the way I wanted to no matter how hard I tried.
One question I hear asked a lot to writers is, “where do you find your stories?” This question is sort of silly to me because stories are everywhere around you if you look. Every item you come across in your day has a story for how it became what it is, and got where it is. If you ask enough questions, eventually you’ll find some interesting element that you can turn into a compelling story if you try. I could go on for a long time about ways to find a story, so instead I decide, in honor of Halloween, to narrow the focus this week and discuss where to find inspiration for horror stories in particular.
For me, I really think horror stories have to either start with the protagonist or the “monster.” By monster, I mean whatever villain is in your story, be it a literal monster, a ghost, a serial killer, a psychological monster, a location, etc. I say this because the core of most horror stories is the conflict between these two entities — the protagonist and the monster — and I think starting with one of them can be the easiest way to start a horror story. If you start with the monster, you can ask yourself who would it go after and find your protagonist. If you start with the protagonist, you can ask yourself what type of monster would they encounter and go from there. Immediately either one can give you your story, but where do you find the protagonist or the monster?
If you want to start your horror story by coming up with your protagonist and you have no ideas in mind, you can go several directions:
- Pick someone you know and turn them into a character by changing some of their traits to make them slightly different.
- Pick a stranger on the street and create a character from them based on what you can infer from their appearance and behavior.
- Pick a stereotype character and then do a free write or character sheet to turn them into something more and give them depth.
- Pick an occupation and then create a character that fills that job role.
There are a ton of other ways to come up with a character, but these are a few of my favorite simple ones. Once you have a character in mind you can find your monster by asking yourself where would this character go to find trouble? Does it find them, or do they seek it out by going somewhere they shouldn’t? Do they have a friend that takes them to a haunted forest? Do they live near a mental asylum where a killer can escape? Do they work in a hospital where people die every day and ghosts may linger? Do they go swimming or camping in a secluded area where monsters could lurk in the shadows?
Think about all the places your character may go on a daily or weekly basis and think about what kinds of monsters they could encounter there. If none of these places is suitable, then think about what kind of friends your character has, and what kind of trouble those characters could get the protagonist into. Do they have a reckless friend who likes going into abandoned buildings? A crazy friend who sees things? A friend who picks up shady drifters and brings them home? Once you have the monster your character would most likely meet, you can start creating the plot between the monster and the protagonist and find your story.
As I said earlier, when I use the term “monster” I don’t necessarily mean a literal monster, but rather I mean any type of antagonist your character will come up against in the story. Monsters can be anywhere, and if you’re prone to writing horror it’s a good idea to keep a list somewhere of various monster ideas whenever you come up with one. A few places that I generally find monster ideas include:
- Reading about urban legends and mythical creatures. Those cheap tabloid papers have some great ones of these, as do those random lists of legends, myths, and creatures that are all over the internet. Pick one and make it your own, give it a setting, and see where it takes you.
- Phobias. These are a great source for monster inspiration because once you pick a phobia you can use it to build your monster. Think of phobia that you like, or look up a list and pick one, and then ask yourself if your character has that fear what kind of monster would trigger it? Do they have a fear of being alone? Then how about you forget them in the middle of the ocean after a deep sea diving expedition (Open Water). Do they have a fear of the dark, well how about a monster that only appears in the darkness and can make the lights go out (Lights Out, Darkness Falls)? Whatever phobia you choose, ask yourself where or how your character can be forced to face it, and what kind of monster could cause them to. Sometimes it’s even the monster that has the fear (Lights Out) and it can be used as part of how the protagonist defeats them, so you can also try to create a monster from that angle as well.
- True unsolved mysteries or famous oddities. These are a great source for horror because they’re true, unexplained, and usually, have just the right amount of creepiness to them that they can be twisted even further for the perfect horror story.
Any of the options above can work for finding a monster to create your horror story around, but they aren’t the only way. At the heart, the monster comes from the twisting of something that is somewhat normal to something threatening. Think about it. Cujo was a dog, a ghost is just a (dead) person, water is just water, etc, but all can be turned and twisted to become a monster. So if you can’t find some kind of monster from the ideas above, then try taking something random and asking how could it be dangerous? How could it be scary?
Once you have the “monster,” then ask yourself what kind of character would they either go after or accidentally encounter? Is the monster in a lake at a teen summer camp? Are they in a house that a nice young family has just moved into? Are they in a school where kids just want to go to prom? Once you know who your monster’s victims are, and where the monster hunts, then you have your story.
A question I hear a lot from beginning screenwriters is “How do I use a parenthetical?” To begin, let’s go over what it is. A parenthetical in screenwriting is the writing that comes in parenthesis after a character’s dialogue tag. It looks like this:
The parenthetical is always in lower case unless it’s a proper noun. It can be located between a character’s name and the dialogue, or between two sections of dialogue for the same character spoken without interruption, like this:
Now that you can identify what a parenthetical looks like, let’s discuss when to use them. There are three main ways to use parentheticals.
How to speak it?
The first and most common use for parentheticals is to tell the actor how a piece of dialogue is spoken. Is it whispered or yelled? Is it sarcastic or serious? Is the character joking or being mean? It can be really easy to think you need to put these parentheticals on everything to mark how it is said, but don’t. Most of the time it’ll be really obvious how the line is supposed to be said so you won’t need to put anything in parentheticals, but whenever you have a line that could be confused you should use one to clarify. For example, if a character is saying a like “Thanks for that.” It could be sarcastic, genuine, or emotionless. Whichever way it is said could change the story, so clarifying how it is said would be useful.
Who to speak it to?
Another way that parentheticals can be used is to clarify who the character is speaking the line of dialogue to if there is a group. Say four people are arguing and the speaker wants to say something to person one without using person one’s name, then you could put person one’s name in a parenthetical to clarify this.
You can also use a parenthetical here to show that a person is speaking the line to themselves. If the speaker is home alone and there is an entire scene where they’re speaking to themselves, then I would use the parenthetical on the first bit of dialogue to show that is the case and not use it after unless another character enters the scene.
What to do while speaking?
The third main use for a parenthetical is to show what action the character is doing simultaneously as they speak. For example, if the character is pointing at someone, or walking away while talking, then using a parenthetical to indicate this can be useful. A lot of this can be shown in action before or after the dialogue, but when it is important that the speech and action happen simultaneously, then show it in a parenthetical.
In general, the rule for parentheticals is to use them as sparingly as possible. Parentheticals are basically like stage directions to the actors. Use too many and it can seem like you’re micromanaging. Your writing should be clear enough that anyone reading your script knows how things should be said, but whenever there is a doubt that it will be clear, use a parenthetical.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
A writing friend and I got in a heated discussion the other day as to whether clichés in writing can ever be a good thing. He is an adamant believer that clichés should be actively hunted down and eliminated from all dialogue, as well as most other areas of writing when possible. I, on the other hand, have a more lenient approach. I think clichés can be useful in specific circumstances, and sometimes they’re the best choice for the job. So when are clichés a good thing?
Sometimes if you can’t find a simple way to reword or rework a scene to avoid the cliché, then you can end up making the writing convoluted and awkward, which is worse than just using the cliché. A cliché can be invisible in the story and the audience may not even notice it, but awkward writing will interrupt the flow and stand out to an audience. It can also become obvious that you’re trying to avoid the cliché, and that can be distracting as well.
A really easy example is the phrase “that’s classified.” If you wanted to you could avoid it in a lot of ways, but there has to be a limit to how far you’ll go to avoid a cliché, and how much space you want to use to do so. If you try to avoid “that’s classified,” you could end up with something convoluted like, “I can’t tell you that because you are not qualified to access that information.” Just reading it makes me roll my eyes because it’s incredibly obvious I’m avoiding the cliché. In fact, it reads like a convoluted way of saying “that’s above your pay grade.” Which is another cliché.
The point is, avoiding the cliché in this case is turning out awkward, and it’s becoming obvious to the audience that it is what I’m doing. You don’t want your audience to stop and think about the writing when they’re enjoying the story – unless they stop to go “DAMN, that was good!” That is always acceptable! You want the audience involved, and in a situation like this it’s easier to throw in the cliché to get the message across and keep the story moving, rather than finding some roundabout way to avoid it.
Sometimes the decision for me to use the cliché comes down to one thing – simplicity. Sure, there are a lot of ways to word things that may let me avoid a cliché, but sometimes the cliché is the easiest, clearest way to get whatever message I want across to the audience. If I can use a cliché and it only takes 2 words instead of 20, then I better have some big motivation as to why those 20 words are needed. I’m a firm believer that every word has to count in a story, and as I said above, sometimes the cliché is just the simplest way to go. Will there be better ways to say things, probably, but does that mean you need to change your wording? No.
Cliches aren’t inherently bad. They can be overused, and they can be used at bad times, but sometimes they’re the best way to go for the sake of keeping the story moving forward. So always consider how complicated the route to avoid the cliché is. Ask yourself, if I avoid this cliché, will I slow the story down? Will it waste space on the page? Does the cliché add or take away anything from the scene? If the answers to these don’t give you a reason to take out the cliché, then I say go with the simplest method of keeping it in.
The biggest argument I think there is for keeping a cliché is that in some character cultures, clichés are ingrained in the system. By character cultures I mean communities like police officers, military personnel, doctors, politicians, etc. These kind of cultures that are part of large organizations have certain things that are ingrained in them.
For example, cliché language is often used by the higher ups in these organizations because clichés are something that a huge group of people will all understand in the same way. Clichés also become ingrained in these organizations because they relay on training being passed down, and the clichés carry through. For example, police officers and military personnel are more likely to use phrases that they have been trained to use. Military men use things like “need to know” because it’s an easy way for higher ups to dismiss lower level employees without actually giving them any information, and those lower level employees generally have to listen because they don’t outrank anyone.
In these sorts of settings, clichés can be used by the higher ups as a very easy way to create a separation between those of different ranks. Think of all the cliché phrases you can for military and even police personnel and think of their purpose: Need to know, that’s classified, that’s above your pay grade, etc. They all serve to protect information, and to put someone lower down in their place. In politics, there is a similar thing going on. The cliché phrases are more about delivering a message without delivering specifics. They say “I will bring change” or “I have the experience to do [blah]” and so on without every really specific what their plan is or how they are qualified.
Similarly, in medical fields clichés exist to keep information vague or to deliver a clear message without getting into specifics. In medical fields you sometimes don’t have time to lay out all the information because of the life and death situation, so abbreviated phrases are used to get a message across to everyone in the room quickly.
In general, these kids of systemized or structural cultures have clichés ingrained in them because they help create structure, they are universally understood, they deliver information and meaning without specifics as needed, and these cultures often have similar situations happen over and over again which can lead to certain sequences of events becoming cliché. The point is, you don’t need these characters to use clichés all the time, but having them in these instances is more acceptable because the clichés are part of the culture and the training almost everyone goes through in these professions, so they are almost expected by an audience.
When to Cut the Cliché?
Now clearly clichés should be cut whenever you can cut them in a way that doesn’t involve the things I’ve mentioned above, but sometimes it can be hard to decide. If there is an easy way to avoid the cliché, then always use it. If the cliché makes the scene cheesy or eye-roll worthy, then definitely cut it. If your entire plot hinges on a cliché, again, think about changing it. The important thing is that the clichés you do use don’t interrupt the flow or come off as lazy. Use them because they’re the best tool for the job (cliché!), and use them because they serve the story. Don’t use them because you’re too lazy to think of something else.
If you aren’t sure, then get a second opinion and see if your beta reader finds it distracting. Ultimately, like anything else in writing it all depends on the specific situation. Clichés exist for a reason, just use them wisely!