10 Tips to Avoid Clichés in Writing

by Peter Selgin

Avoid Stolen or Borrowed Tales

Most sensational subjects have been treated to death. Result: a minefield of clichés. And, as novelist Martin Amis tells us, good writing is a “war against cliché.” The story’s problems might be partially redeemed by crisp dialogue, vivid descriptions and an impeccable edgy style—but the plain fact is, they shouldn’t be solved.

Turn a Stereotype on its Head

The real problem with clichés is that they deprive us of genuine details, which, though less sensational, are both more convincing and more interesting. A deeper look into the life of any artist will reveal facts that have it over all clichés.

The truth is the best weapon we have for authenticity and against cliché: Whether it’s the literal truth or the truth of imagination doesn’t matter.

Tell the Story Only You Can Tell

When we produce stories that are derivative, we’re not being honest with ourselves. We’re borrowing someone else’s aesthetics and selling them as our own.

In choosing intrinsically sensational subjects, writers think they’re getting a free—or a cheap—ride. But as with most things in life, you tend to get what you pay for.

The best way to avoid cliché is to practice sincerity. If we’ve come by sensational material honestly, through our own personal experience or imagination, we may rightly claim it as our own. Otherwise, we’d best steer clear. Our stories should be stories that only we can tell, as only we can tell them.

Keep it Real by Taking it Slow

Far worse than rushing, in trying to interest us, most writers abandon sincerity and, with it, authenticity. They choose sensational subjects on the basis of little personal knowledge and no genuine emotional investment. They do so on the assumption that their own stories aren’t interesting enough, that what they have to offer isn’t suitably “sensational.” In fact, every human is in some way unique, and this in itself makes us each “sensational” in our own ways.

In pretending to be anyone other than themselves, writers sacrifice the very thing we most crave from them: authenticity.

Rescue Gratuitous Scenes From Melodramatic Action

Overly convenient subjects are prone not only to cliché, but to melodrama.

We call a story or a scene melodramatic when its protagonists are too obviously heroes or victims and its antagonists are obviously villains.

Fight Overly Convenient Plot Points With Authenticity

Melodrama is to authentic drama what “crab sticks” are to the real thing: an inferior substitute.

Sometimes the mere piling on of sensational events results in melodrama. Another result of cramming too much drama into too few pages is a paucity of authenticating detail, the sort of small, precise, carefully chosen and calibrated descriptions that help suspend a reader’s disbelief and make it possible to enjoy a story no matter how unlikely or outrageous.

By slowing down and taking the time and trouble to imbue our stories with authentic, rich, specific moments and details, we achieve real drama and avoid its floozy cousins, sentimentality and melodrama.

Curb Melodrama with Substance

When a relationship is “dramatized,” nearly all of the dialogue is head-on and histrionic, vomiting up plot and backstory. Accusations and apologies are served up along with great gobs of personal history.

A more dramatic, less histrionic approach would convey the status quo between characters up front, through exposition, leaving subsequent scenes free to explore behavior and character. We read the story to see how these characters will cope (or not) with each other under specific circumstances.

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Tell the story only you can tell, keep it slow, and write authentically. Perfect advice.

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101 Writing Tips

1. All screenwriting books are bullshit. ALL. Watch movies. Read screenplays. Let them be your guide.

2. ‘Write what you know’ works, but it’s limiting. Write what fascinates you. Write what you can’t stop thinking about.

3. The so called ‘screenwriting guru’ is really the so called screenwriting conman. Don’t listen to them if you don’t know their movies.

4. In what I thought was the beginning of a serious heartfelt convo, I told my dad I wanted to be a writer. He looked at me and said “You wanna write? Write.” Still the best advice.

5. Calculate less. Don’t try to game the market. Write what you want to write. And drink plenty of coffee.

6. Of the many supposed rules of writing, the only one that’s ligit is ‘write every day.’

7. There’s a whole industry of bunko men who say that writing needs to be learned at some course. Don’t believe it.

8. The moment your screenplay leaves your hands it becomes a commodity. So while it’s with you, treat it like a piece of art.

9. Instead of reading screenwriting books, read about your subject. The subject that fascinates, compels and interests you.

10. With writing gurus it’s all about the HOW. How do I write this. What writers should think about is WHY. Why do I need to write this now.

11. You don’t need any expert’s permission to write your story, your way. Repeat that.

12. Every writer should read Haruki Murakami’s  ’What I talk about when I talk about running‘. It’s a great book on running and even better one on writing.

13. Forget about contests, agents, focus on what you can control: words pages and the intention behind them.

14. The first screenplay that my partner and I wrote it was rejected by every agency as unsellable. It was Rounders.

15. The Coen brothers, Charlie Kaufman, Quentin Tarantino never tried to guess what Hollywood would make. They wrote their obsessions and so should you.

16. Let me use fewer words than the books do to explain three act structure. Beginning, middle and end. So stop worrying and start writing.

17. When I want a quick shot of inspiration I watch Amelie or Y Tu Mamma Tambien. Movies that broke all the rules but engage the heart.

18. Self doubt goes hand in hand with self expression. Tune it out for two hours a day. You’ll have a finished screenplay.

19. Look I’m not saying form and structure don’t matter. They do. But it’s forming an emotional connection with the reader that sets you apart.

20. When I’m stuck on a first draft I remind myself that no one gets to see this ’til I say they can. Which gives me persuasion to finish.

21. I can’t tell you how to write dialogue and build a character. No expert can either. You have to love writing enough to figure it out for yourself.

22. Know this: whatever your favourite movie is, at some point during the writing of it the screenwriter felt completely lost.

23. Try and write your first draft as fast as you can so the doubts don’t have a chance to creep in.

24. If you just can’t make progress on your screenplay today, write an essay, bang out a short story. Generate some pages.

25. The more rules you’re trying to remember or beats you’re trying to hit, the harder it is to get in a state of flow. Just write.

26. Always write for yourself but don’t be self indulgent. Define your audience and write for them too.

27. Here’s something I’ve noticed: amateur writers tend to write characters dumber than they are. Pros try to write characters smarter.

28. The ‘realist’ in the spirit of ‘friendship’ always wants to tell the writer the ‘real’ odds of getting something made. Tune ‘em out.

29. Don’t stress about making your main characters likeable or relatable. That’s development speak. Just make them fascinating and we’ll care.

30. You already know how to tell a story. Think of one that worked, that got you out of a ticket or got you a date and figure out why.

31. There’s not one exec in Hollywood who knows what audiences want to see next year. So write what you want to see.

32. Writers look for reasons not write, so make a list of all the reasons you need to write and put it next to your computer.

33. If you love giant commercial blockbusters, that’s what you should try to write. But if you love small personal films, write those.

34. ‘Hey, aren’t you just filling them with unrealistic expectations?’ I hope so. All writers start out with unrealistic expectations.

35. Protect your writing time. Establish rituals around it. Take a long walk, make a particular kind of coffee to get you in state to write.

36. Writing a first draft can be a fragile thing. Don’t sabotage yourself by talking to people who don’t share your dreams.

37. I was a blocked writer until I was thirty, so I know how painful it is. I also know it’s worth it to fight through it.

38. If you power through and finish a screenplay, you’ve accomplished more than 99% of the people who ever have a movie idea do.

39. Somedays you just don’t feel creative. That’s okay. Write anyway. At least that way you’ll build momentum.

40. I find that nothing can change my state faster or get me in a creative state of mind quicker than listening to one of my favourite pieces of music.

41. I don’t know any professional writers who’ll tell you it’s easy. It’s worth remembering that. It’s hard for all of us.

42. The best writers I know are led by their curiosity. And they follow it until they find the story they want to tell.

43. Resilience is a writers best friend. Train like a marathon runner. Move a little further each day, despite the pain.

44. Failure is huge part of any writer’s life. So you have to redefine the term so any day you write is a success.

45. The best moments in writing are the ones you can barely remember. It’s like they happened in a dream. But the only way to earn them, is to grind every day.

46. So what’s the trick to finding an agent, to finally breaking through? The trick – don’t let that stuff distract you.

47. If you’re trying to decide what to write and you have one idea that scares you because you don’ know what people will think of it… write that one.

48. Perfectionism can be a real asset in the final stages of any artistic project. But on the first draft it’s a momentum killer.

49. When we celebrate risk takers we’re talking about mountain climbers and cliff divers, but I know creative risk takers are just as brave.

50. Here’s a tip for getting unstuck: Stop staring at the computer. Open a notebook and handwrite it or talk the scene into a recorder.

51. Most people spend only a small part of their day feeling fully engaged. So think of your writing that way and it’s easier to commit.

52. When I say write what fascinates you, that’s because it’s easier to show up every day and do the work when you’re truly passionate.

53. You don’t have to like what you write every day. You just have to show up at your laptop or your desk and write.

54. When you really throw yourself into a creative endeavour, people in your life can become pretty critical. Remember: it’s them not you.

55. If you only have an hour a day to write, look at that as a positive. Because it forces you to focus and work with intensity.

56. Do I have to move to LA to make it as a screenwriter? Do I have to be tall to work in the NBA? No, but you better outwork everyone else.

57. When I say don’t fall prey to perfectionism, I don’t mean lower your standards. I mean don’t use standards as an excuse not to write.

58. Whether or not to outline is really a question of how comfortable you are with uncertainty. Which is also the answer to whether this is the career for you.

59. Remembering this helps take the pressure off: There are two first drafts. The first draft you write for you, and the first draft you show to someone else.

60. Many of us have what gamblers call leak – a habit or enthusiasm that knocks us off course. Figure out what yours is and close it.

61. If you find yourself insulted by someone’s reaction to your work. Just use it as fuel, just like every other writer who ever lived.

62. But what if I sit down today and I have absolutely nothing to write? Think of the last huge argument you had with someone and write it as a scene.

63. It’s easier to deal with something if you anticipate it. So know that somewhere in the middle of your script you’re going to think it’s worthless and fight on.

64. Sometimes you’re stuck because you don’t know what’s supposed to happen next in your story. Here’s a trick, just think of what your characters might do next, and write that.

65. Nobody chooses to become a writer or any kind of an artist because it’s easy. You do it because you have too.

66. Is writing sometimes lonely? Yes, but it’s worth it for those moments where time disappears and you feel connected to everything.

67. So what’s more important – inspiration or discipline? Honestly, you need to use 100% of both.

68. The first time I got a bad review it almost took me out. Then I realised that if I got right back to creating I could survive.

69. If you’re going to become an artist of any kind you have to know it’s almost impossible to succeed and then work like you know you will.

70. I think self imposed deadlines are useful because they can prod you forward. Just make sure that they’re also attainable.

71. Don’t share your draft with anyone else until you can’t think of anyways to make it better on your own first.

72. Think of how much joy your favourite artists have brought you. Now imagine if your work can do that for even one other person an get to it.

73. But how do I know if I’m just wasting my time? How do I even know what I’m doing is even any good? Nobody ever knows. Do it anyway.

74. Professional artists don’t expect to create museum quality work with the first sketch on a new project, they just want to get something down on canvas.

75. Is it possible you won’t sell that novel you’re working on or screenplay or painting you’re trying to finish? Yeah. Isn’t it awesome you’re doing it anyway.

76. Your imagination is more powerful than any critic, agent, or studio boss in the world.

77. The greatest shooters in the history of the NBA all shot the ball differently. Just get it in the hoop.

78. What do I do every day to keep myself in a creative space? I journal. I meditate. I take long walks.

79. If rule number one is ‘write every day’, rule number two is ‘take creative risks’. Even when they fail, you get stronger.

80. The next time that someone laughs at your dream. Remind them that Paul Haggis’s Crash script was rejected for five years straight.

81. No one in Hollywood woke up this morning wondering how they can help you. But they did wake up desperately in need of great material.

82. There is no secret. Writing is all about hard work, persistence and discovery. Anyone who says different is selling something.

83. If you can get past the sticky mid point of any artistic project, you’ll be floated, at least for a while, on momentum and inspiration.

84. Here’s a basic truth I like to remind myself of. If you write one page a day, you’ll have a first draft in three and a half months. Two, in fifty-five days.

85. Once you’ve written a first draft and you’re on to the rewrite, strive for clarity. Even if your narrative is opaque and twisty your prose shouldn’t be.

86. People ask, ‘how do you know when your stuff is ready to show to other people’. This isn’t science. Part of writing is developing that instinct.

87. If you wanna be an artist you better learn to say NO. To the temptations pulling you away from your work; to the wrong people; to your inner critic.

88. If you still feel pressure writing your first draft, don’t think of it as a first draft. Think of it as a rough draft, then revise. That’ll be your first draft.

89. All I want to say today is this: the romantic vision of the beautiful tortured artist addict is a lie.

90. For one week, track how much television you watch. Next week, spend one third of that time creating something.

91. Do professional writers ever feel like they’re banging their heads against the wall and everything they’re writing is useless? Of course, we just stay at our desks anyway.

92. If you want to model a character after your cousin, your aunt, your uncle, your friend, do it. You can disguise them later. Make them real now.

93. What if I’m a good writer I just don’t want to deal with all that politics? What if I’m a good swimmer I just don’t want to deal with all that water?

94. I was beating myself up about spending a saturday reading, watching movies, instead of writing. But then I remembered, input – as important as output.

95. There’s no one creative endeavour I’ve tried that hasn’t been met with resistance and rejection at first. The trick is to ignore those things.

96. The time you set aside to create is one of the only things you can control. Luckily it’s also the most important factor in getting things done.

97. I promise you this. If you write every single day, a year from now, you’ll be a much better writer than you are today.

98. Screenwriting is not a competition but somebody’s out there not daunted by the odds, writing every day, dreaming big. Is that you?

99. Should I outline or not? And which genre? Better question: what can I do today to put myself in the best state of mind to create?

100. Tell the truth. Does talent matter? Of course it does. Here’s the good news. Talent reveals itself over time.

101. I was in the book store earlier tonight and I realised every single author made a decision at some point that they were a writer. Are you ready to?

film meme » four screenwriters [2/4]: Ben Hecht

Best known as: The prolific Hollywood screenwriter who did The Front Page

Ben Hecht was a jack-of-all-trades writer who became famous as the go-to script guy in Hollywood during the 1930s and ’40s, from The Front Page (1931) and Scarface (1932), to Wuthering Heights (1939), Notorious (1946) and Kiss of Death (1947). Born in New York City to Russian immigrants, Hecht spent his boyhood in Racine, Wisconsin and began his career as a journalist in Chicago. A celebrity reporter, he was also foreign correspondent (Berlin in 1919), columnist, short story writer, novelist, playwright and a co-founder of The Chicago Literary Times (1923-25). He went to New York City in 1925 to pursue literary ambitions, but was lured to Hollywood the next year by his pal Herman Mankiewicz (later the Oscar-winning writer of Citizen Kane). Hecht had a gift for plots and witty dialogue, and he famously cranked out successful scripts with ease, making a lot of money along the way — and publicly hating himself for it. Credited with over 70 films, it’s widely known Hecht was uncredited on just as many. He won the first-ever Oscar for writing 1927’s Undercover, and he won another Oscar for 1934’s The Scoundrel, a film he made as director and producer with long-time collaborator Charles MacArthur. (MacArthur was also Hecht’s collaborator on the play The Front Page, now a standard of the American stage and screen.) Other films Hecht worked on include Gone With the Wind (1939), Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Spellbound (1945), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), Monkey Business (1952), A Farewell to Arms (1957) and the early drafts of Casino Royale (1967). Hecht took his name off several films, sometimes because of artistic differences, but also because in the late 1940s he was aware his films would be banned in Britain because of his support of the creation of a Jewish state in British-controlled Palestine. His 1954 memoir is A Child of the Century.

Extra credit: Marilyn Monroe’s memoir, My Story, was actually written by Ben Hecht, something that wasn’t publicly acknowledged for four decades after his death… As a child in Wisconsin, Hecht was a violin prodigy and trapeze acrobat with his circus-owning landlords… The story on his first Oscar is that Hecht used it as a doorstop as a measure of its importance… The screenplay that earned him his first Oscar was written in a week (1926) and Hecht was paid $10,000. [x]

film meme » four screenwriters [3/4]: Ernest Lehman

Ernest Lehman who was the first noted writer consciously to pursue screenwriting as his main vocation may have been Hollywood´s most successful practitioner ever.

His four best known films represent a remarkable range: the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock espionage thriller North By Northwest, an original screenplay; the saccharine musical and box-office record breaker, The Sound Of Music (1965); the pitiless study of a ruthless New York columnist, Sweet Smell Of Success (1957), from his own novella; and the acerbic marital catfight, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966), based on Edward Albee’s play and starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Throughout his screen work, Lehman maintained a finely crafted fidelity to a good story, and that became his hallmark. Yet despite four best screenplay Oscar nominations and the record for awards from the Writers’ Guild, he only received an Oscar in his 85th year - for lifetime achievement (the Academy’s consolation prize).

He also worked on a major MGM release, Executive Suite, which came out in 1954 with an all-star cast including William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Frederic March, Walter Pidgeon and Shelley Winters. It was directed by Robert Wise and its success sealed Lehman’s own for his first screenwriting effort. Sabrina, with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, and directed by the great Billy Wilder, quickly followed. Over the next 20 years Lehman worked for almost every studio, and four times for Wise. Their partnership in The Sound Of Music actually rescued Fox from impending bankruptcy when it became a global hit in 1965.

From the mid-1950s Lehman wrote screenplays for the Siam musical, The King And I (1956), an enormous success that made a lifetime’s career for Yul Brynner; the New York gang musical West Side Story (1961), based on Romeo and Juliet; the Barbra Streisand musical, Hello Dolly! (1969); the screen autobiography of New York boxer Rocky Graziano, Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), which launched Paul Newman’s career; an adaptation of John O’Hara’s novel, From The Terrace (1960), also with Paul Newman; and in 1972, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s then scandalous novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. [x]dn

Go through your script and test each incident and character to see if it can be removed from the story without damaging the whole. The ‘rule’ here is that anything that can be cut should be, because when anything non-essential is eliminated, what remains is greatly strengthened.
—  Alexander Mackendrick (director/screenwriter)
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