Thursday, August 02, 2007

Still Life

Bouquet de fleurs dans un vase,
Jean-Pierre Lays (1825-1887),
oil on canvas, 1881.

Writers are justly harangued about cliches.

About stereotypes, about flat characters, about tired, repetitive plots and language beaten to death with a broom handle.

And we know how some agents/editors react to a story that opens with a dream or with the main character glumly observing themselves in the morning mirror. Or gazing out the window before aspirating their morning coffee.

Etc. I think there's a list.

The cliche scene.

I'd like to add another: the hand-wringing dilemma scene.

The character paces about, whispers aloud, sits on something convenient and slumps in despair. Female character sometimes throw something , then fling themselves down and sob.

We are supposed to experience sympathy, tension, until the writer reveals the terribly difficult choices facing the Muttering Mannequins.

We don't.

Dull as your last bind date.

The moment the scene is introduced, you can predict the verbs.

And not just at beginnings.

If we're not careful, the little buggers may show up anywhere in an MS -- when we take our carefully crafted and individual character and force him to conform and react to a stereotype, to a bland, conventional perception of how people act in certain situations.


Anonymous said...

That is a lovely still life. I was wondering, where do you get most of the pictures you post. Just do a web search or do you have secret places?

Bernita said...

They are taken mostly from catelogues, books and magazines, Steve.

writtenwyrdd said...

That is probably a point to watch for during final edits as you do not have your characters revert to some bland and overused stereotypical behavior.

I was just thinking about this yesterday, when working on my "vampire smut." I wrote the bare bones of the actions in order to get them straight in my head; then when I tried to flesh them out, I realised that I was trying to use pat phrases and actions. It was actually hard to not do so, because the phrases were familiar and so felt more correct than making up something of (hopefully) my very own! And therein lies what I think is a really big reason we writers can drop these cliches into our work: It's far easier and more comfortable.

Great post again, Bernita!

Bernita said...

And sometimes we unconsciously let our description fall into certain familiar patterns, WW.
Thank you. You described it well.

Jon M said...

Alarm bells are ringing, B. My characters do a bit of pacing, I'm just going back and checking my MS now!

I may be pacing the room, trying to decide what to do about it!


Carla said...

Is it the wording used that you're objecting to, rather than the scene itself? I'd say it's a bit harsh to reject the dilemma scene wholesale. We've all had to make hard choices and those scenes often resonate with me. The sequence in Jane Eyre where she's steeling herself to leave Mr Rochester sends shivers down my spine yet.

Jaye Wells said...

I always see stories like a movie in my head. Overwrought characters tend to appear childish to me or like drama queens. This is why reading out loud or even acting out a scene can be quite educational.

Bernita said...

You are so funny, Jon!

Certainly, any type of scene may work in the hands of a competent writer, Carla.
I do not object to dilemmas or to scenes portraying them.
I do object to the cliches of standardized reaction patterns.
I'm sorry if the distinction was not clear.

Bernita said...

I wonder if movies and TV scenes have influenced writers that way, Jaye.
They assume an all-purpose pattern to display certain emotions.

writtenwyrdd said...

I do think that all types of media influence my writing. Movies and television tropes-- and even music videos!-- have invaded current fiction. And I figure that it is normal because these tropes are culturally relevant (or should I say current?). At any rate, they are recognizable and have meaning.

But when are they actual cliche and laziness on the writer's part? That's the tricky thing to determine, IMO...

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

With principal characters I try to merge myself with them, trying to feel how they would feel so that I can guide the words appropriately - rather than succumbing to the "norm" - a thing which baffles me at the best of times :-)

Bernita said...

I just wonder if they've contributed to the set-piece cliche, WW.

The best way,Vanilla.

spyscribbler said...

So true! Last year, something happened that shocked me so much, my jaw dropped open.

And then I realized. In my whole life, I've been surprised into dropping my jaw open maybe two times. As for as wringing my hands together, um ... I can't recall watching anyone wring their hands together.

From reading some fiction, however, you'd think jaws drop open in shock and hands wring together in consternation a thousand times a day!

kmfrontain said...

Biting lips. Who does that? I've seen it in movies and only in movies, and yet there's this biting lip thing propagating from story to story to story. I think it's an airborne cliché virus.

Charles Gramlich said...

I guess such scenes become convenient short hand, which is why they are used so much. But you're right, for many of us they throw us away from the character instead of draw us to them.

writtenwyrdd said...

Honestly, I bit my lower lip all the time. One of the gestures I keep trying to give my characters, though , is nibbling on cuticles. I do it a lot when I'm pausing to consider what gestures to write, so it comes to mind, lol.

takoda said...

Very interesting post, Bernita.

How about a hand-wringing gnome pacing the gardens?

Okay. My father-in-law compliments something to death when he doesn't like it or isn't pleased. Sometimes I just wish for the lip curl signaling derision.

Angie said...

I agree, it can be really easy to slide into off-the-shelf verbage, especially when the main focus of your attention is on getting to the next plot point. You're just paving the road from Point C to Point D and it can be easy to forget to do some landscaping on the verges and maybe try bricks instead of asphalt for a change. (A nice herringbone pattern perhaps?)


Bernita said...

And there are other ways to describe consternation than those, Natasha.

People do bite lips,Karen, but there seems to be a pandemic.

Exactly like an emotional shorthand, Charles.

I usually sit in front of the screen with my mouth slightly open - and my eyes slightly crossed, WW!

Bernita said...

"off-the-shelf verbage"
A good description, Angie. Thank you.

Bernita said...

They get no pity from me, Chris.
So, you know exactly how to read him.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Hey, I met my husband at my last blind date!

Not that I was actually on the date with my husband-to-be.

Anonymous said...

Bernita, thanks.

Bernita said...

Met mine in a taxi, SS!

Welcome, Steve.

Sid Leavitt said...

Muttering Mannequin? That would be a great name for a detective who, speaking incessantly sotto voce, stumbles into solving the crime.

Scott from Oregon said...

There is so much being written out there that, when read, feels like deja vu all over again...

Body found on the first page with two detectives who dislike each other... for example.

I toss away books that give me the feeling I've read this somewhere before. There is too much that is unique out there, to waste that much time and energy.

The Anti-Wife said...

I bite my lip, I wring my hands, I rub my forehead and the back of my neck. I am a cliche. Another well written and thoughtful post. Thanks!

Bernita said...

Hmmm, Sid, or perhaps a department store killer.

It would be so nice, Scott, to read of two detectives that really like each other.
On the other hand, I never get tired of some standard plots - the same as some food.
I doubt you're a walking cliche, AW!
Some people rub their forehead with two fingers,some with three, some left to right, some vertically. Some people bite their upper lip, some tuck in a corner of their mouth, some attack their bottom lip like a squirrel with a nut....

Merry Jelinek said...

Great post - I'm glad I followed the link from Jaye's Blahg...

I do bite my lip. I also raise one eyebrow on a fairly regular basis... though I draw the line at hand wringing. That said, I think the key thing to remember here is that I'm a real person and therefore my own little forays into a stereotypical charicature are completely believable... as you've actually seen it.

Here's the thing with fiction; it has parameters. Recreating lifelike emotion often means taking a detour from reality. In real life anything can happen, even the unbelievable... in fiction you have to make sure your reader believes it...

Readers are quick to dismiss the easy tricks, such as a distressed character noting their image in a storefront window. Maybe my character would, in real life, utilize these actions, but in writing we have to come up with creative ways to show their motivation without the real world tells.

I've heard the same consternation over the number of heroines with green eyes - in reality, few people have truly green eyes, which I'm sure makes the author feel it gives the character a uniqueness - but it reads as a rip off of Scarlet O'Hara. Sure, the author can point to their sister in law and her beautiful green eyes, but the more astute writer would do better to leave off the obsession on small traits and devote time to building the inner world of the character to set them apart from the masses.

Great discussion here.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Merry.
I also have the frequent habit of raising one eyebrow.
Took me hours in front of a mirror as a teenager to perfect it.