Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Ask Yourself One Question

Others have started their posts this month on tropes with the definition. I shall be no different. A literary trope: the use of figurative language, via word, phrase, or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs, or clichés in creative works.

How does a writer avoid hackneyed plot tropes? The hard-drinking cop/detective who can’t forget his mistake that cost a life. The single woman who goes back to her hometown to either care for an ailing relative, attend a class reunion/funeral, or for a hundred other reasons, and reconnects with the hometown love of her life who dumped her. The serial killer who kidnaps women and how the latest victim does him in or the persistent detective finds him before he kills her. The female cop trying to prove herself in the face of misogynist male cops who typecast her as a lightweight.

We know there’s nothing new. Every plot has been done before in one way or another. I’ve tried hard to write characters and plots that jump out of the box. It’s not easy. Blind psychologist joins forces with a deaf cop to find a killer; psychic is stalked by a psychic killer, powerful cabal kidnaps infants of brilliant parents to create a superior race, A woman creates a different identity to hide from an attacker who changed her life. I’m sure those plots have been done before, but I keep trying to put a different twist on them. I know many authors who do the same thing. As they say, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Sometimes I think everyone is.

Certain overused phrases and descriptions set my teeth gnashing (see teeth-gnashing below). I’m one of those people who latch onto tics.

Tic: a frequent usually unconscious quirk of behavior or speech. "You know" is a verbal tic.

For example, one talking-news head grunts after every comment made by a guest, like, hmm, only more guttural. Once I noticed that, the tic sounded like a gong. Of course, a tic is not a trope, but it has the same effect on me. In too many books, I find certain phrases repeated often enough that I’ve latched onto those too. See if any of these rings a bell:

he said through gritted teeth (different from gnashing)
lips tightened into a thin line
heart banging against her ribcage
blood rushing in his ears
she released a ragged breath, cleansing breath
squared her shoulders
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

You’ve all read these phrases. I've probably written a few of them early on before I noticed everyone else was writing them too. Not sure readers pick up on repetition like I do (except in my own books where repetition slides by me until the third or fourth reading or my critique partner catches it), but these are only a few of the ones that turn neon yellow when I read them.

Writers try hard to avoid certain words but it’s hard to find other words to replace them. Nod is one. Head-bobbing doesn’t do it. Waggle makes me laugh. Indicate agreement? (Insert long sigh here.)
Walk: you can stroll, stride, saunter, march, or amble, but sometimes you just walk, dammit.
I read one book where the character fell into a chair a dozen times. Just plunk your bottom down and SIT, for heaven’s sake.

It was a pleasure to read the latest book from one of my favorite suspense writers, multi-award-winning author Michael Robotham. The book, When She Was Good, the winner of the 2021 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, has some descriptions that were so good that I wrote them down while reading in bed. Nothing tropian—is that a word?—about them.

With hands as gnarled as knobs of ginger and eyes that squint into brightness when there is no sun.

A woman answers, sounding English rather than Scottish, with a voice that could polish silverware.

Lenny doesn’t react, and for a moment, we’re like hovering birds, caught in a pocket of wind.

It isn’t easy to come up with original descriptive phrases that stop you from reading, not because they sound like the author went to the Thesaurus to find a word no one ever heard before, but because they’re so darn beautiful you want to savor them. Really, knobs of ginger? I buy ginger root, and nothing could be more descriptive when talking about arthritic hands with gnarled knuckles. Another author who uses descriptions that puts you in the scene is James Lee Burke. You can smell, feel, and taste his descriptive prose. It’s a gift not many writers have, and if you can’t do it right, it’s that neon yellow again.

Many authors try too hard, using words that stop a reader like me because we know what they’re doing. It might be the difference between reading as a reader or reading as a writer, but when prose and dialogue aren’t natural, they land on me with a thud. Readers know dialogue is stilted or when the writer is striving to be creative and goes overboard.

My test is to ask myself one question: Would I speak like that? Would I use that word? Would anyone in normal parlance? Okay, that's more than one question, but they all mean the same thing. The answer usually gets me on the right track.

 

Polly Iyer is the author of ten suspense novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, Indiscretion, and we are but WARRIORS, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. She’s also the author of four erotic romances under the pseudonym, Maryn Sinclair. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can connect with her on Facebook and visit her website for more information and to read the first chapters of her books.



21 comments :

  1. I'm more forgiving of plot setups but look for characters and writing that take them out of the ordinary. I also have certain overused (IMO) devices I find annoying, and once I notice, I become much more sensitive to their use.

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    1. I always look for the twist from a plot that takes it out of the ordinary or hackneyed. I wouldn't have noticed them as much before I started writing because I didn't pay attention to them. I do now.

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  2. I wish I had the imagination to come up with images like James Lee Burke. Jane Cleland gave a webinar for SINC recently on this subject. Perhaps with a bit of practice I can master this.

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    1. Me too. I think it helps that he lives in one of the most picturesque areas in the country. My series takes place in New Orleans, and I wish I could spend more time there to fully appreciate all the sensual experiences.

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  3. Polly, this is great. I love metaphors and similes that stretch the imagination and Robotham's ginger knobs is stunning. Thanks for an eye-opening terrific read!

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    1. Thanks, Michele. The ginger knobs made me sit up in my bed. I've read all of Robotham's books. Always a treat.

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  4. Don't we all wish our imaginations would seize on images that resonate with readers but aren't hackneyed? Of course, if I waited to find the perfect words, I'd never finish writing a book~

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    1. This post was NOT directed at you. You, more than anyone I know, write the most imaginative words and expressions.

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  5. Hey, I didn't think it was directed at me. I was just reflecting on how hard it often is to come up with something original, and realizing you have to move on!

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  6. Heh. I love the one about the voice that could polish silverware. I could HEAR her speaking. :)

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    1. Isn't that a great one? Makes me want to quit writing. No, wait, my sales are doing that for me.

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  7. LOL! My sales are pretty terrible, but I'm lackadaisical about promo, so I'm at least partly to blame. ;)

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  8. I always enjoy a word, phrase, or allusion that creates a vivid visual in my mind. Metaphors, similes, sometimes even personifications do this effectively when employed by a savvy writer who thinks outside the so-called box. Michael Robotham has obviously honed this skill to an art. Great post, Polly, a definite keeper.

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    1. I try too, Linda, but when the image becomes more important than the thought, I know I've veered off track. It has to be something brilliant that stops me because it's so good. I haven't written too many of those, but I know them when I see them.

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    2. The image has to mirror the thought for me. In that moment, the mind of the writer and my mind merge. It's a memorable moment.

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  9. In the latest binge series, the author likes the term "snick." She uses this for all kinds of actions: picking locks, opening things, etc. We all have crutch words. Mine change with each book and my list is always expanding.Two other words that annoyed me recently: hot and smirked.

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    1. I think it's Lee Child that used the phrase, Reacher remained silent, or some phrase very close. It was 61 Hours, if I remember correctly, and I listened to it on CD, which sometimes makes phrases like that more obvious. I don't know if he kept doing it, I stopped reading him.

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  10. Oh my, I should have read your post before writing the one I have in draft. You expressed so well some things that bother me while reading, and my upcoming post will be a mirror image of yours, maybe not presented so well because I write with brain fog. Loved this: Walk: you can stroll, stride, saunter, march, or amble, but sometimes you just walk, dammit.

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    1. Thanks, Maryann. I get crazy over some sentences that strive to be original. And yes, you can just walk, dammit.

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