Okay, so there are plenty of scientific answers for what life is. Beating heart. Brain activity. The little things that keep people who look dead from being buried alive. Seriously, it’s freaky. There’s a reason they put bells over graves long ago, so if someone happened to wake up they could pull it. Ever wonder where the term ‘saved by the bell’ came from?
As writers, do we really want to make our readers cry?
Well yes. Of course. Why else do you write except to harvest those precious tears?
Or maybe not.
Writing isn’t a form of escapism. It isn’t a luxurious way to spend time. One doesn’t make thousands of dollars and live a dream life. Writing is hard. Writing is painful. And writing builds character.
While there are many things I’ve learned while writing, I’m only going to list three today. Because three is the magic number. Besides, it sounds cool. Three Things Writing… yeah. We’ll settle with three.
Clichés abound in fantasy. The dashing prince rescues the helpless princess. The mentor dies and his student going on to save the world. The villain dresses in a long black cape with a pet snake on a staff.
A cliché, by definition, is anything which is trite or commonplace through overuse. These can be phrases, such as ‘right as rain’ or ‘red as a cherry’. They can also be a character, such as the carefree friend or the grim mentor. And, of course, there are cliché scenes: a handsome prince glimpsing a beautiful princess through a tower window and falling desperately in love. The mentor dying. The villain telling the captured hero all his plans.
How to Use Cliches
Many clichés remain popular because they work. Who doesn’t thrill over the heroic rescue or ache for the main character as his mentor dies saving him? Yet, because of the overuse, once exciting scenes can lose a bit of their luster. Don’t throw out all clichés at once, however. They have their uses.
It is amusing to take a cliché and twist it just enough that it’s recognizable. Keep the grim mentor, but let him make puns with a straight face to infuriate his apprentice. Perhaps the foolish antics of the court jester covers a formal character who drops hints about his king’s table manners along with his jests. Maybe the new knight tries desperately to be heroic, completely fumbling the bows and formalities of rescuing his betrothed, while the demure maiden provokes her captors with irritating pranks they can’t trace back to anyone.
This is especially pleasing when done with phrases. Start with a common cliché phrase, then twist it into something completely new. Instead of ‘pale as death’, find something suiting the character, the setting, and the emotion for ‘pale as the marshmallows he inhaled by the dozen’. Instead of ‘all’s fair in love and war’ change it to ‘all’s fair in love and the pursuit of chocolate’.
Make fun of clichés
Or, instead of simply freshening a cliché, you can make fun of it. If something is cliché, and the character recognizes it as cliché, the possibilities are enormous. They may embrace it, or make fun of it, or use is as a starting point for other actions. ‘Well, since I’m obviously the villain and wearing black, I decided I’d better take a trip to the pet store and find an intimidating animal’ *presents hamster* *alternately presents snake, holding it as far from self as possible with thinly disguised disgust, then quickly depositing it back in its box*
Change cliché endings
Opening with a clichéd line or scene and then changing it halfway through can be hilarious. Although not fantasy, one of my favorite moments in Avengers: Age of Ultron is where Iron Man asks Ultron about something. Ultron replies with ‘I’m glad you asked that, because I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan…’ and then proceeds to attack.
Note the normal course of events in clichés, then turn the character or setting on its head. Maybe it’s the apprentice who dies and the mentor has to go save the land. Maybe it’s the dragon who rescues the prince from the princess.
Overused fantasy clichés
While clichés can be twisted or sometimes used outright, there are several main ones which have lost their effect through extreme overuse.
The villain monologue
These are easy for the writer because we can give our character and reader the information they clearly need. It’s also lazy on our part.
A scene where the villain tells the character his plans could work in the right setting, but it needs to fit with the characters and the themes. Is it something the villain would really do? Does he need recognition? Is he someone who has to prove what he can do or rub it in the main character’s face? Or is he cautious and quiet? There are other ways the main characters can figure out what has happened: vague comments and orders, notes, letters…
The mentor’s death
No matter how heartbreaking the scene, too many mentors have died. Your reader’s eyes will begin to glaze. Yes, they might be sad your mentor is dead, but the death of a more unexpected character, such as a best friend, will have a deeper emotional impact.
Sometimes mentors need to die in a story. But since they are generally wiser and more skilled than the main character, don’t let them die for a minor reason. Only kill them if you must. And, if you do kill them, make the scene as fresh and memorable as you can and make sure there is a valid reason for their death.
He’s reached his position by being cautious and smart. His security is going to be tight. He’s going to hire good soldiers. If your character is attacked by several guards, he’ll have to be very good to defeat or escape them. Slipping past the villain either for infiltration or escape is not an easy task.
Clichés are still used nowadays because they worked. They had power. Even the ones fading from overuse can be dissected. Figure out how they pull on emotions, then build up a new idea around that grain.
Keeping clichés in mind can be very useful. But, because of how common they are, work on freshening your clichés, making fun of them, or turning them on their heads.
In the end, you’ll get a story worth its weight in gold. Or chocolate. Or maybe even moon gems.
Everyone has that one book or movie. They love it to a thousand pieces but have reservations about recommending.
“Yesssss! It was amazing. The arcs were so real, and the characters. And I can’t believe the plot twists. But…” *tries to explain what others might consider objectionable content without making it seem the worst piece of work on the face of the earth.*
There are a few things like this for me. The musical Hamilton. Movies like Hart’s War. And Brandon Sanderson.
Though probably one of the bravest realm leapers I’ve met, Kirin has weird ideas *coughs* irrational fears *coughs* when it comes to creatures. And the ones he does try to care for and bring back are the ones he probably would leave best alone. Basically, take what he says with a grain of sand and maybe you’ll learn something and still want to travel beyond your own door.
Each realm holds dangers unique to it. Lightning sand, sinkholes that drop you into another dimension, earth waves (think sea waves, but on land), and hurricanes. But there is one danger that crosses all lands… a danger all the worse because so few people notice it.
Disclaimer: I have nothing to do with Kirin’s attitude toward royalty. He didn’t get it from me.
Stability is all about order in leadership, of course. Never mind finances or fleets or armies. All you really need is a leader with a crown and scepter. His word is law, no questions asked. One can serve him, or one can rebel. In either case, there will be uncles ready to spring from the woodwork and depose of untested nephews, or queens to seize the crown for their young infants.
But hey, it’s still all in one family. A family who can fight it out among themselves, while wielding great armies and unlimited power. What could ever go wrong?
Kirin, umm, acquired a handbook not long ago. More like a pamphlet, giving tips to assassins both about their jobs and of what to do to occupy the times in between.
Disclaimer: if you’re reading this, you’re probably some young idiot who thinks he can take on the world and get paid to do it. Or you’ve some sort of broken past with nothing to lose. Or maybe you just like the money (which is decent, I admit. If you can keep it). All this to say, if you’re serious about being an assassin, chances are you’re going to die. Not yet, unless you’re really stupid. Maybe not for years. But sooner or later you’ll start a fight you can’t win. Or some vengeance stricken family will hunt you down. Or you’ll become so dangerous your own kind turns on you. If you can enjoy life with that shadow on your future, read on. If not, go find some other occupation, like candle-making or wool-carding.
Today we have an amazing guest post from the great Kate Flournoy herself. Get used to hearing her name, because whenever she starts publishing her book I’ll be ranting about them all the time.
Oh, and for those of you who keep asking, she’s also the one who’s made my book covers.
But I’ll not embarrass her too much today because she’s sprung to the rescue of my own insane schedule and saved us all with her guest post about the power of parallels in writing.
Writing is like magic. Tremendous power that can only be harnessed through the tricks and tactics of the system.
Some of us (the truly ancient magicians) have many of these powerful tricks memorized by now.
But for the younger generation of trainees, most of us have yet to even discover them.
Fellow magicians, gather round.
I’m going to share one of the most powerful tactics I’ve learned in my own training. The one. The only. The INFAMOUS. INSIDE. JOKE.
*cue ominous drums*
Okay, that may have been slightly overdone.
Seriously though, this is one of my favorite tricks, because it’s so incredibly simple but wields a ton of power at the same time.
The first thing any writer needs to understand about their craft when it comes to writing a book that engages the reader is that half of any story is always written in the reader’s heart. Without a reader, your story is just strings of words on a page, and every person brings a different perspective to it.
Your job is not to force them to see everything as you see it in every detail, but to guide the eyes of their heart in the direction of what you saw and trust them to put the pieces together as they belong.
Inside jokes are one of the best ways to do that. Essentially, the I.J.T consists of parallels. Create an association, and then repeat the outer characteristics of that association elsewhere to evoke the same emotions.
Think of it as an ordinary object that you fill with magic to use later. You find a stone, endow it with the ability to give light, and then the next time you want light all you have to do is pull out the stone.
For instance, what if your hero is a brooding, emotionally unstable assassin who spends his days in hiding and his nights on assassinations. We open with him perched atop the very highest pinnacle of his dark tower, staring down over the city and half-playfully daring himself to jump and discover what ‘too late’ feels like.
But then, say his life takes a turn for the better. He falls in love with a woman he was sent to assassinate, and goes on a quest to remake his life and become worthy of her so he can ask her hand in marriage. He goes to the pinnacle of his tower less and less often. He takes to wearing brighter colored cloaks over his black clothes, and stops playing with his knives in public.
Finally he gets to the point where he feels he can approach her, and with high expectations he slips into her palace and obtains an audience… only to find her surrounded by maids of honor and decked out in flowers and a white dress, in preparation for her wedding with one of the highest men in the city… that’s happening in precisely twenty minutes.
The assassin’s life is shattered. We could go to great lengths to describe his agony; send him all over the city on a wild killing spree and spend chapters worth of anguish taking him all the way back to the place he started.
But we don’t really need to. All we have to do is take our magic stone and whisper ‘let there be light’… and we find him back on the very pinnacle of his tower as he was in the beginning, with his bright cloak in tatters and his black clothes showing through as though it never changed.
This works on every level of storytelling, from prose to subtext to character arcs to theme. Parallels are amazing tools, and the I.J.T. is only a very small part of a very large and powerful collection of spells.
So? What are you waiting for? Your reader wants to be trusted with piecing the story together; they want to invest in it by catching your hints and responding to your subtle pokes. Not to mention, casting these kinds of spells is just plain old fun for you. What’s holding you back, aspiring magicians? Go forth and conquer!
Thank you so much, Kate, for hopping over here for the day. As for you others, you can (and should) find out more about Kate and her work at The Inky Notebook.
As writers, we suffer (or laugh) our way through a number of questions, comments, and looks.
So I decided to grace a number of questions with my own sarcastic answers.
Things I’ve been asked (in various ways):