First blog from singer/songwriter and author, Jonathan Taylor, whom I interviewed earlier on this blog. He would welcome feedback.
I was tempted to call this posting, “I’m too old for this shit,” to give you a clue as to what it’s about. And, yes, you’ve got it, I am talking today about clichés. Clichés, the writer’s sworn enemy. Clichés have a way of sneaking in under the wire, in the work of even the most seasoned of writers. At high school we were told by English teachers in no uncertain terms to “avoid them like the plague.” Did you notice what I did just then? I used a cliched expression “avoid them like the plague.”
My point being that school kids are allowed to get away with them. It’s – another cliché – a learning curve. However, seasoned Hollywood scriptwriters, directors and producers have no excuse. Clichés can of course be employed in a tongue-in-cheek way, but not when they are used and re-used in the same way. We all know the hoary old cliché of the aging cop who is brought out of retirement to track down the killer he failed to capture first time around. At some point, during a shootout, or when he’s trying to vault a wall, or when he’s in the middle of a car chase, he’s going to say (I promise you): “I’m too old for this shit.” And on the subject of car chases, why is it, I wonder does the driver of the fast car, when he’s trying to escape the pursuers, invariably says, “Hang on.” Talk about a needless instruction. Also, I asked myself, hang on to what? Your hat? Your cojones? The air?
My all time favourite Hollywood cliché, though, has to be THE BIG SPEECH. In way too many films these days, whether it’s a high school teen romp, a romantic comedy, a courtroom drama, or a sci fi epic, there’s a scene close to the end when all is put right. The anti-hero finds redemption, and stands up on a platform and tells everyone what a bad person he has been and how he has changed because of the love of a good woman/parent/mentor/dog. Or the villain is crushed – usually in a very public place like Prom Night, an assembly hall, a football arena, or somewhere else large and crowded – while the hero publicly shows his triumph. Admittedly, I did want to cheer when Al Pacinio, in the film, “And Justice for All” turned on the client he was defending and declaimed to the judge and all assembled in the courtroom: “He did it. The sonofabitch did it!” Only now I’ve lost count of the times I have watched that same scene, or one much like it, played out again and again in Hollywood movies.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a huge amount of respect for scriptwriters. Many of them do a sterling job against all odds (budget, market forces and so on). But the producers and directors all too often go for the easy way. They somehow believe that this kind of nonesense is what the audience wants. But, in my view, all these clichés and cop-out endings simply insult audiences. Honestly, Hollywood, you don’t need to over-explain everything. And, if you’re going for laughs, come up with some new lines, please.
The latest episode of the wonderfully creepy Tales to Terrify podcast features a story by Gary Fry, a terrific British writer. His story, The Indelible Strain of Company, is narrated by yours truly. I had great fun recording the story, which brought to mind the classic tales of M.R. James and others. Such tales have little need to for literary special effects – though the writing is beautiful and extremely effective. Rather, this ghostly tale seeps into one’s bones, and leaves that sensation of something watching…just beware of turning your head around to see what it is!
Oh, and if you want more, I do recommend you pick up a copy of the first volume of Tales to Terrify in print or ebook format.
Once in a while an idea for a story jumps into my head and won’t let go until I write it down. This one has been on the back brain burner for a few days. It may become a longer tale at some stage, but for now I am signing off on it as a flash fiction story. It also prompted a writing tip: try writing something which is an inversion of something familiar. I trust you will get it when you read….
A REAL BOY
My father’s expression is kindly, unchangeably so. That frozen smile, those laughter lines scored into the corners of his eyes. He rarely speaks, but whenever he does his voice seems to come from above, behind the curtained vault of heaven.
How he came to make me in the first place is a profound mystery. His hands are fingerless, the thumbs not even articulated, but I admire them; they are the hands of a master craftsman. A master craftsman who made me so perfectly in all my imperfection.
I waggle my tiny, chubby fingers in front of my face. Five fingers and a thumb on each hand. They repulse me. Why should I have all this fleshy articulation when I would infinitely prefer to have solid wooden spoons like father? It seems so unfair that he is unarticulate whereas I am so fluent, both in body and in speech. When I speak my lips and my tongue move. That tongue of mine is disgusting in my mouth, a wriggly little worm, fattening itself on the inane words that insist on spilling out of me.
If only I could have the same painted smile as my father. If only my lips could not move. Then perhaps I would not keep asking the same question, over and over, “Why, father? Why did you make me?”
With my back against the wall, I sit quite still, legs outstretched, feet over the edge of the workbench while father tries in vain to tie my boot laces. The best he can manage is to cup each boot in turn in his spoony hands and lever them onto my repulsive, multi-toed pink feet. Though he’s still smiling — how can he do otherwise? — I feel sorry for him, and decide to let him off the hook.
“Can I do up my own laces, father?” I say.
When he raises his head his expression might be one of either surprise or gratitude. Depending on the angle of his head or how the artificial lighting strikes it.
He steps back, giving me his silent permission. My heart breaks for him.
Drawing my feet up onto the bench one at a time, I lace up the boots. Then I slide off the bench and onto the floor.
Father nods in satisfaction and clumsily pats me on the head.
“Time for school,” he says.
I know this already. My first day. I nod and fetch my satchel from the hook behind the door. Glancing up briefly I find myself finally understanding why our house does not have a roof. Why none of the houses in town do. It is to allow father, and all of the other residents to move in and out of their homes freely. So that their strings do not catch on anything as they go about their daily business.
After kissing my father’s hard, varnished cheek, then patting the black carved wooden cat sitting on the windowsill, I bid them both goodbye. The cat might try to follow me, I think, but then again he has been on his perch for as long as I have known him, though I have no idea how long that might be. Each day, like my father’s smile, is exactly the same as the one before. There is nothing to mark the passage of time here, except for that single bright star that appears in the dark blue curtain above us once upon an eternity.
In an earlier blog I interviewed the great singer and songwriter, Jonathan Taylor. Now you have a chance to hear the man himself speak (not like Garbo), on one of my favourite podcasts, Get Behind Me, Now Stay There.
Today’s writing tip, if you want to call it that, is about character and dialogue.
A wise writing guru (I think it might have been Ursula K. LeGuin) revealed a core truth about one aspect of writing that has stuck with me. It’s this: dialogue is not conversation. Which means, in a story with to and fro conversation that sounds too much like real life – “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?”, and so on – serves no purpose in a story. Sure, we can have snippets of regular speech, provided there is a point to them. What a character says, and how they say it, can express something about that character. It can also move the story along. So, instead of a block description of an action, or event, a bit of snappy dialogue might move things along faster and, potentially, in a more interesting way.
Much the same can be said when choosing character names. A name can tell you something about the character, and not just nationality. If you’ve got a character, for example, called Helen Highwater, what does that tell you? Okay, that’s not a great name, unless she’s a character in a comic novel. But you immediately form some sort of view about what kind of character she is. How she talks, and what she talks about, will flesh her out, too. Which means you don’t even need to physically describe her.
Which reminds me, I really must now write a comic novel in which a certain demon librarian, called Helen Highwater, features.
As ever, please add your own comments. I love to read other people’s ideas and points of view.
Jonathan Taylor (see my interview with him a few weeks back on this blog) has written this great song to mark Bulgaria’s Baba Marta day. Baba Marta (Granny March) is a mythical woman who, depending upon her mood, will allow winter to pass quickly or drag it on if you’ve displeased her in any way. The song was filmed by Bulgaria’s TV7 channel. And you can find links to download Jonathan’s latest album on the youtube page.