The Hunger Games + the surprising truth about clichés.

butterfly

I’ve been reading The Hunger Games this spring. I read all three books in record time. Back to back. I finished the third book in the trilogy last night. Before bed. As I was falling asleep.

I like to read short stories in the morning, after breakfast, when my mind is sharp. I try not to read more than one story a day, because I prefer to turn a story over in my mind as the hours pass. I like to read as though I’m melting a square of very dark chocolate in my mouth. A good story can linger in my mind for at least 12 hours.

So I never read short stories before bed: too intense. If I’m lucky, and I have the gift of time (like a holiday weekend!), I can spend all day with a delicious novel, like I did with this one and this one.

So what to read before bed, when I want to wind down?

If I read a good novel before I go to sleep, I miss most of it. My eyes start to close as I read, my mind softens, and I lose my place on the page. For this reason, I usually read Pema Chödrön at bedtime (this is a book I’ve read so many times, it doesn’t matter if I lose my place).

I couldn’t read The Hunger Games during the day when my mind was sharp, because I got too frustrated by sentences like this one:

“She bit her nails like there was no tomorrow.”

Brief etymology of the word cliché:

1832: from French cliché, a technical word in printer's jargon for "stereotype,” which means "printing by means of a solid plate of type.”

Printers saved time by setting a block of words into a solid plate and printing the plate over and over for multiple projects, instead of doing the picky work of selecting letters one by one every time. They could slot the cliché into the press and print the text more quickly and efficiently.

In your writing, clichés are phrases, scenes, and situations that have been used so frequently (by yourself or others) that they’ve fused into solid plates of type. You can just slip them in your scene without thinking about it too much, because they’re so efficient. They stand for more than they show. They’re shorthand.

The Hunger Games is filled to the brim with clichés. Clichés up the wazoo. Clichés like there’s no tomorrow.

The same familiarity that makes a cliché so easy to slip in your scene is the very familiarity that makes your reader’s eyes glaze over while reading it. If your plot is good, your reader may keep turning the pages. It might even get you a movie deal (a book can be a great plot treatment).

But your reader’s experience of the scene will be superficial and inauthentic. She’ll get the gist of your scene, but she won’t really read it or feel it. Because your cliché just reminds her of what she’s seen before.

But there’s a silver lining! (okay, sorry.)

A cliché makes your eyes skate over the page, right? So the more clichés there are in a book, the faster you can “read” it. This makes a cliché-studded book wonderful for bedtime.

You won’t miss anything, even if your eyes close a little.

See you in District 12,

xo

Sarah” width=

     

p.s. Cliché antidote: Little Bird Stories Volume II. I read the winning stories over the weekend. Wow. From Zsuzsi Gartner's introduction: "What every single one of these disparate six stories does is move – like an electric current, like gossip, like a time-lapse photo, like a boy diving into icy water, like life... These are the kinds of sentences that defy you not to keep reading." The eBook launches next week. Stay close.

You're a good writer: admit it.
Announcing Little Bird Stories Volume II!

4 comments

Gabriele Kohlmeyer

Great newsletter, thank you Sarah! I've been thinking of reading the Hunger Games, too, because the story seems gripping, have also been thinking of reading "the Beach" lately, for the same reason. I'm a little scared, though, that such books are like the bad kids in school my parents warned me about because they'd spoil my grades and good manners. Won't reading Hunger Games mess up my (hopefully less clichéd) writing style? Glad you don't seem to think so, Sarah !:-)
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I often get nervous about writing because of the heavy exposure to clichés. Mais c'est la vie. You're right - they do help you scan through the book faster and save your attention for the big parts. At least I won't beat myself up too much if I use a few in my next draft.
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