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