Cliches that are as old as the hills… um… I mean…

I found myself in a stragely familiar place this morning. I was in a conversation with a forboding older man who seemed to have all the answers. He must be behind the mystery I was pursuing, and he and I were playing a game of cat and mouse as we danced around the issue of what I knew and what he knew.
Well, it wasn’t me, really. It was my main character.
I had written myself into the well-worn scenario described above. Scenes like that are comfortable, familiar, and hard to avoid. There’s something about them that makes writers find them. Perhaps it is the deep routes in our subconscious that have been dug out by similar scenes going back through movies and books and myths (the darkly foreboding witches in the woods who direct MacBeth to his future; the mirror on the wall which reminds the Queen that her beauty isn’t all that she might like; the Catepillar on the Mushroom asking Alice “Who R U?”) I suspect it’s that combined with their ability to make writers feel incredibly productive: they write themselves, so before you know it you’ve churned out a thousand words and think, “I can’t be bad if I just got 1000 words in 20 minutes. I’m a friggin’ genius.”
Cliches provide for lazy writing–they hide lack of quality inside quantity. They must be undone. So, I got to some undoing. In the end I was pleased with what I scribbled into my journal, and thought that a few of my detours through the cliche I was unknotting might be helpful to others. First, I had a character state that he was locked in a cliche. The other character agreed and they moved forward outside the cliche. No more “games” were being played. They talked openly about what was going on.
Second, the scene became about something other than the conversation. I never really wanted their conversation to be the focus of the scene in the first place, but by falling into the cliche it had done just that. By undoing the cliche and allowing the conversation to be more above board the scene returned to its true focus: body-language and symbols which the main character found in the setting took on higher importance. With the conversation being so, in a word, plain, I was forced to heighten the tension by creating layers to the antagonists actions–subconscious ticks came to the fore. Finally, by undoing what would have been game-playing dialogue (lies, half-truths, feigned surprise) I opened the door for more of the main character’s personality to come through (sarcasm, intelligence, puzzle-solving) in the dialogue. It went from being hack dialogue to original dialogue where protagonist and antagonist traded verbal jabs in a knowing, almost enjoyable way.
Cliche happens. It’s how we deal with it that’s the trick. Sometimes a cliche can get us into a scene, keep things moving, and allow us to prime the pump. Once the words start to flow, that’s when you have to redirect that energy.

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