When you’re waiting for the curtain to rise at a theatrical production, you wonder what the stage will look like. Will the first few moments show dazzling scenery or characters prancing about? Will silence or song fill the air? What are you in for, and where will it take you? The catchphrase “lights, camera, action” captures the exhilarating transition from darkness to light and stillness to dancing. When you stand on the threshold of a poem, you’ll have similar questions and emotions swirling through your mind.
When Adam and Eve bit into the forbidden fruit to experience the taste of both good and evil, they consciously rebelled against God. Broken, they plunged into an existence fraught with sorrow. In the shadow of their future, the rest of humanity plunged as well. We now live submerged, choking on water we weren’t meant to breathe. The people around us thrash and cough and drown every day. But how often do we think about the fall when we’re developing characters?
Many writers, myself included, tend to devalue short stories because of their brevity. “Real” writers are supposed to craft novels. Some of the most famous authors of the twentieth century, however, were masters of the short story. Think William Faulkner, Ray Bradbury, Oscar Wilde, Flannery O’Connor, and O. Henry. At only 5 or 10 percent the length of a novel, a short story may seem far less intimidating, if not downright easy, to write. But short stories come with their own set of challenges that can help hone your skills for larger projects.
When we hunt for clichés to remove from our manuscripts, we pay attention to characters, plot lines, and even phrases, but we have a habit of overlooking settings. Genres, however, tend to recycle details to the point that readers can predict the culture they’re going to encounter before opening a book. They might still enjoy the story if it’s crafted well, but they won’t experience the wonder of exploring unfamiliar territory. As writers, we should be striving for greatness, but we can’t achieve this goal if we rely on copy-and-pasted settings.
The sky’s the limit to the number of clichés that can infiltrate writing. In fact, I intend to dump a truckload into this article to illustrate why writers should avoid them like the plague. However, I also believe we ought to tip our hats to clichés. Because the phrases were crafted well, people repeated them until overuse rubbed off the gilding. Now they’re commonplace. But I still appreciate their origins, and I’m going to show you how to dig out the creative potential buried beneath them.