I'm following up on Bonnie's last post on words that detract from our writing, and I think we should vote some more stuff off the island. Now I'm sure we all know these need to go, but a little review never hurts. And sometimes, where there's a rule, there's an exception.
1. The information dump. I don't know about you, but I easily fall in love with my research. And while I may find it fascinating that bats always turn left when exiting a cave, or that elephants are the only animals that can't jump, unless these facts influence the direction of the story or give insight into a character, they have no place in my manuscript. There needs to be a reason for inclusion. For example, take author Elizabeth Peters' character Amelia Peabody, the turn of the century archaeologist-sleuth. Amelia often pontificates on Egyptian history, but that's who she is -an outspoken, well-educated woman proving herself in a man's world. In one scene, she went on for a very long paragraph, and since the author has a Ph.D. in Egyptology, the word 'gratuitous' came to mind and I skimmed it. In the last sentence of the paragraph, Amelia tells the readers that she knows they skimmed it and to go back and read because the information was important to the case. With all the earmarks of an information dump, here proved an exception to the rule. I loved how she used humor to make her point.
2. The backstory overload. This is closely related to the information dump, but more of this information is crucial to the story. Like watching your neighbor's 8mm home movies - you take for granted that he was born and moved through the stages of life to adulthood, but you're only interested in his story in the here and now, and perhaps a few things that would explain how he became a millionaire anime video game creator or a successful brain surgeon by the age of 25. Unfortunately, too often this information comes before we have gotten to know or care about him - or 50 pages into the story, which has been the line of demarcation given by publishers in recent years. (I hear this line is flexible and open to negotiation ??) Backstory lightly sprinkled to create tension and whet the readers' appetites is quite different. An exception would be if the backstory is the real story, as in The Princess Bride, or an immediate trip to the past is crucial to the story, as in The Time Traveler's Wife.
3. Stereotypes & its ugly twin, cliche. By stereotypes, I'm not referring to cultural differences or profiling. I'm talking about the one-faceted, predictable cardboard character who is manipulated by the writer for a purpose. He/she could be the inhabitant of a small rural town or a trailer park or an obese person, a trophy wife, soldier, Democrat, Republican, feminist or priest. The only way to avoid this trap is to know your characters to the bone and treat every one with respect. A cliche is 'anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse,' such as a plot, setting, character development, use of color, or a phrase (strong as an ox). Even a story device can be cliched. "On Star Trek, every time there came a problem that was too difficult to handle the writers would have someone travel back in time to solve it...Every hospital show has to have a young idealistic intern and an old, cranky administrator..." (see here ) Years ago at a conference, I learned that having my protagonist describe herself by looking in a mirror was cliched. I promptly rewrote my opening. I can't even think of a good exception to this rule, can you?
Good news - unique, fresh ideas and genuine writing get to stay on the island! They are hidden like jewels on a treasure hunt - so worth the time and effort to discover them.
Can you think of a stereotype or cliche in the making? What about phrases such as being 'kicked off the island?' Oops!