Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Screeching to a Halt on a Manicured Lawn

Sandra Parshall

There it was, in the middle of a beautifully-written book I'd been enjoying.

The hero hears a noise on the floor above and starts up the steps to investigate. Something slams into him, he feels a blinding pain... "then all was blackness." That means he was knocked out. Loss of consciousness is a fairly common occurrence in crime novels because it's so useful. It always creates a sense of urgency and danger — when the main character is clobbered, the reader knows the situation is heating up and more excitement is on the way. It also removes the protagonist from the action long enough for the villain, now unhampered, to do something dastardly in the background. If you read a lot of crime novels, you're likely to see a lot of characters getting knocked out. The descriptions will be remarkably similar. "...then all was blackness." "...then everything went black." "...then the world went black." I suffered a concussion once, and that was exactly what happened: everything went black. But I've read the description so many times that I grind my teeth when I come across it in yet another mystery or thriller.

Like most readers, I have my personal list of pet peeves, and that's just one of them. I also groan every time I spot the phrase manicured lawn. I picture a salon manicurist on her hands and knees, clipping the grass with those tiny cuticle scissors. Manicured lawn has become the most common shortcut phrase for telling the reader that a landscape is well-maintained. Even Webster's lists it: "[Colloq.] to trim, clip, etc., meticulously [to manicure a lawn]." But I don't think it makes sense. For me it's another teeth-grinder.

Speaking of landscapes, what about all those tree-lined streets? If the writer wants us to know that a character inhabits a placid, pleasant neighborhood, he mentions the tree-lined streets. But how many residential neighborhoods don't have trees on the streets? Some of the worst slums I've ever seen had tree-lined streets. The phrase creates a vague image in my mind because it tells me nothing new. The writer hasn't given me a single striking detail that would make the setting specific and memorable.

Now let's talk about the manner in which a vehicle ceases motion in an emergency. It screeches to a halt, of course. Or, for variety, it screeches to a stop. Once when I was proofreading a manuscript of my own, I stumbled onto this and had a strong urge to bang my head on my desk until all was blackness. They're insidious, these cliched descriptions. Let your guard down for a second and they march right in and make themselves comfortable. All too often, though, writers deliberately usher them onto the page. We need a quick way to convey an idea, so we reach into our handy Bag of Cliches and come up with a manicured lawn or a tree-lined street, and we continue without a second thought. I'm not claiming the high ground here, because I'm as guilty of lazy writing as anyone else.

Also abundant in fiction are situational cliches, those scenes where coincidences crop up or characters do absurd things because it's easiest for us to write them that way. (The unarmed hero or heroine who goes upstairs or downstairs alone to investigate a weird noise is a prime example, so the writer who prompted this rant committed two sins, not one.) Too much of that stuff in an unpublished manuscript will deaden a story and doom its chances of selling. Too much of it in an established writer's work can turn off the most ardent fans and leave them feeling cheated.

I can easily see all these flaws in other people's writing. I can't always spot them right away in my own. But I have vowed to be more vigilant. From now on, I'll give every chapter, every scene, one reading that will focus on cliches and lazy descriptions. I might not get rid of your pet peeves, but I can make sure the things I hate are rooted out. It's a start.

All the Deadly Daughters are amazed and delighted to find our site on a list of "Eight Top Mystery Blogs" in the April 15 issue of Library Journal. It's nice to be noticed!


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

The mention in Library Journal brightened my Income Tax Day birthday right up, Sandy. :) And oh, dear, I might have committed a manicured lawn or two at some time. On the other hand, some of the meanest streets I've known have not had trees, and that added considerably to their grimness. All right, you don't have to tell me that "mean streets" has (or have) to go.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Sigh, I'm taking a class from Writers U, and I'm learning the same thing about cliches or overused visuals. Now I have to go over my manuscript with a, (gasp, please pardon the cliche) fine tooth comb and fix it. Great post!

And I'm still chuffed over the mention of our blog on Library Journal!