Today, a friend sent me this piece of doggerel:
“She danced a while and drank some wine before she rolled her eyes at me. I picked them up and rolled them back and then we swam into the sea.” (Source unknown.)
How well it illustrates yet another pitfall the unwary writer can fall into, such as the following:
Bob threw his hands in the air. (Did he catch them?)
Armand’s eyes roved over her body. (Did they tickle, or did she slap them off?)
Jane walked across the campus to the library and sat on the fountain. (Did it shoot her into the air or did she just get wet?)
Tim dropped his head into his hands. (Good catch, dude!)
I’m sure there’s a clever name for these phrases. Anyone out there know what it is? The point is that we need to be aware of the imagery we’re creating when we use such ludicrous phrases. Are we really writing what we mean, or are we reaching for a shortcut? Imagery is a tightrope on which we balance. We need it to bring our sentences to life, and yet it can be overdone, underplayed, skewed, silly, histrionic, absurd, or ineffective.
As a writer with my admittedly nerdy moments, I particularly enjoy the film THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN because of Billy Crystal’s struggle with his book’s opening sentence, “The night was ….”
Such a cliched beginning anyway, and then the adjectives (moist, wet, humid) he comes up with grow increasingly silly. But don’t we all do similar things when trying to be fresh and different?
Jessie’s face was as red as … what? Beet is overdone, dried up, and over. Yet what else works? Tomato? Spanish onion? Must we employ vegetables for this image?
If we leave the veggie patch behind, what should we do instead?
Jessie’s face was as red as the planet Mars.
Ahem … I don’t think so. In reaching for freshness, we’ve overdone it. Such an image is appalling, just plain wrong.
Jessie’s face was as red as the petunias in Mrs. Streck’s flowerbed. Ah … much better.
Albert’s eyes were as round as … Saucers–alas–are off the table. (Pun intended.) So here we go again. Round as … Coke bottle bottoms? Baseballs? Salad plates?
Of course the problem with dodging cliches is that the darned things convey the image so well. And a job well done leads to overuse, which is how cliches are created.
So maybe we should look at a character and find different ways to describe him or her besides a simile. Maybe we should be more precise in our narrative, so that when Jane walks to the library, she sits down on the fountain’s edge. Or there should be different reactions from our characters than head dropping, eye rolling, smirking, and hand throwing.
Maybe we should reach deeper into a character’s emotional state and pay more attention to what we might find there. Make your characters as complex as people, then consider their emotions. Why are they taking action? What are their reasons? Convey that information and don’t just reach for the first hackneyed phrase or reaction that comes to mind.