Tag Archives: Margie Lawson

Guest Post: Margie’s Rule #9: Cliché Play by Margie Lawson

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Thank you to Writers in the Storm and to the incomparable writing coach Margie Lawson for this wonderful article on how to eliminate tired and meaningless phrases from your writing.

There-are-times-when-using-clichés-or-cliché-twists-works-well.When-they-are-so-rich-so-perfect-they-make-you-smile.When-they-are-so-twisted-they-make-you-laugh.-Margie-Lawson

Most writers know to avoid clichés. Every basic how-to book for writers includes a section on avoiding clichés. Those experts refer to clichés as lazy writing.

So do I.

Clichés represent weak writing. They’re easy to throw on the page. No thinking required.

Clichés don’t share the specificity and emotion as the phrase or sentence you could write.

No power words. No power.

What are power words? In my world, power words are the words that carry psychological power.

What’s wrong with using clichés?

  1. They’re predictable.
  2. They’re annoying.
  3. They invite the reader to skim, and tune-out.
  4. They don’t add specificity.
  5. They don’t deepen characterization or draw the reader deeper into the scene.

There are times when using clichés or cliché twists works well.

  1. When they are so rich, so perfect, they make you smile.
  2. When they are so twisted, they make you laugh.

Dennis Lehane, Moonlight Mile

Dennis Lehane uses two clichés in the passage below from Moonlight Mile. The one in the last line works well. It’s a perfect fit.

Set Up:  The POV character is angry with Helene, the scuzzy mother of the teenage girl who is missing. Here’s how he characterized Helene earlier: “If it smelled of stupid, Helene just had to be somewhere nearby.”

After the silence went on a bit too long, Helene said, “What’re you thinking?”

“I’m thinking how I’ve never had the impulse to hit a woman in my life, but you get me in an Ike Turner frame of mind.”

She flicked her cigarette into the parking lot. “Like I haven’t heard that before.”

“Where. Is. She.”

“We. Don’t. Know.” Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old, which, in terms of emotional development, wasn’t far off the mark.

I’m sharing my deep editing analysis of that passage for fun, and to share the learning opportunities. After my analysis, you’ll find more examples of cliché twists. Enjoy!

Deep Editing Analysis:

Cadence – Read it out loud. You’ll hear the cadence driving the reader through every sentence. No stalling.

Allusion – Rhetorical Device – the reference to his Ike Turner frame of mind.

Clichés

  1. Like I haven’t heard that before.

In this scene, that overused line carried power, strengthened characterization, and made me laugh. I approve using this cliché here.

  1. . . . wasn’t far off the mark.

It works. It’s tight. I like the cadence. And I can’t think of a better way to end that sentence.

Period. Infused. Sentences. My way of describing when the author morphs what would have been a normal sentence into sequential single word sentences. Like. This.

“Where. Is. She.”

Lehane shared what I call a Dialogue Cue. He didn’t add a sentence describing how the words were delivered. He showed it structurally. The punctuation indicates that each word is clipped, and that the character speaking is big-time irritated.

He also did something I haven’t seen on the page before, but I’ve heard it in real life. He had one character speak in that clipped style, and had another character respond the same way.

“Where. Is. She.”

“We. Don’t. Know.”

The reader knows the second character is mocking the first. But Lehane doesn’t TELL us. He SHOWS us. Smart. And smart alecky too.  🙂

Facial Expression, Amplified:

Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old, which, in terms of emotional development, wasn’t far off the mark.

Lehane could have stopped with:  Helene bulged her eyes at me.

Lehane could have stopped with: Helene bulged her eyes at me like a twelve-year-old.

Lehane could have stopped with: Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old.

Ah! Adding the word, pissy, adds psychological power. It taps a universal emotion in readers.

Most adults have dealt with a pissy twelve-year-old, a child, niece, nephew, neighbor. Adding pissy elicits an internal nod. It ratchets up the tension and tightens the emotional hook.

But Lehane didn’t stop with that strong sentence. He amplified the line and empowered the emotion. Here’s his sentence again:

Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old, which, in terms of emotional development, wasn’t far off the mark.

Back to Clichés!

Writers often write body language, dialogue cues, and visceral responses in clichéd ways.

  • She arched an eyebrow.
  • His face was as red as a beet.
  • She had butterflies in her stomach.
  • Her legs turned to jelly.

Avoid them. Write fresh.

Clichés are sneaky devils. You may not catch them until a 7th or 11th or 27th read-through. Or you may not catch them at all.

According to Donald Maass, clichés sprout up everywhere. Donald Maass has a sensitive cliché-meter. So do other agents.

Some people are cliché blind. They don’t recognize them. Working with a critique group, critique partner, the clichéd phrases and sentences they miss may be caught.

REMEMBER — Compelling Cadence:

Every sentence should have a compelling cadence. Read these examples out loud. You’ll train your cadence ear.

Cliché Play from a few Immersion-grads:

Megan Menard, Pursued

Before:  It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

After:  It’s all fun and games until the river wins.

Before:  “I’m done with Little League, Ketterman. Time to knock this one out of the park.”

After:  “I’m done with Little League, Ketterman. Home runs can be caught. We’re going for the grand slam of escape. Set off the alarm and run all the way home.”

Before:  “Forget it. You’re slower than molasses.”

After:  “Forget it. You’re slower than dial up internet.”

Set Up: Seniors in the retirement home are playing poker.

Before:  …winner takes all

After:  Those scoundrels cheated and rigged the deck to beat Esther Scott’s full house with four of a kind, leaving her as the loser-takes-all new owner of Tank, the meanest cat in God’s creation.

 

Suzanne Purvis, Fused

Before:  My heart jackhammers.

After:  My jackhammering heart pounds get-down, get-down, get-down.

Before:  Matt throws another rock and barely misses Avis’s ear.

After:  Matt throws another rock and misses Avis’s ear by a flea’s foot.

Before: The last sentence was:  Each time, setting me up as his fall guy.

After:  He started the fire behind the Friendship Hall, the fire at the Chamber of Commerce, the fire at the library. Each time, setting me up as his fire guy.

 

Lori Freeland, The Accidental Boyfriend

  1. I’m selfie-conscious.
  2. This girl’s kick-boxing my ego’s ass.
  3. I didn’t sign on to be his bud-with-benefits.
  4. Tension’s strumming off me like a badly played guitar riff.
  5. I try not overthink the whole commando-thing while I’m putting on Gabe’s pants without Victoria to cover my secrets.

BLOG GUESTS:  IT’S YOUR TURN!  

Click the comment link and say Hi. Or share one of your cliché twists.

Guest Post: Margie’s Rule #16:  Adding Subtext with Dialogue Cues by Margie Lawson

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Guest Post: Margie’s Rule #16:  Adding Subtext with Dialogue Cues by Margie Lawson

A big thank you to Writers in the Storm for permission to reprint this fabulous article by the incomparable Margie LawsonMargie’s Rule #16 originally appeared here.

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When people talk, subtext happens.

Every time.

You can’t say one word without sharing subtext.

Subtext for dialogue: The psychological message behind the words.

When the words and the subtext are incongruent, the truth is in the subtext.

In the real world, we factor in subtext all the time.

On the page, we need subtext to make scenes rich and credible.

If you’re writing a scene with strong emotional content, you need to include plenty of subtext.

This blog focuses on subtext for dialogue. Not the we’ve-read-it-too-often ways to describe how the character said the words. Those overused descriptors are predictable. Skimmable.

I’m referring to what I call dialogue cues.

Dialogue Cues – My term. Here’s how dialogue cues fit in ways to tag dialogue.

Margie’s Five Categories for Tagging Dialogue:

  1. Basic Attributions:  Said and asked
  2. Action Tags:  Tags dialogue with action. Doesn’t share anything about the voice
  3. Body Language Tags:  Tags dialogue with facial expressions or body language
  4. Dialogue Tags:  Shares something about the voice, but these are often overused, like murmured, boomed, resonated, said harshly, said with a razor-sharp edge.
  5. Dialogue Cues: Describe how the words are delivered. They inform the reader how to interpret the message behind the words, the psychological nuances.

Digging deeper into dialogue cues.

They’re fresh. They carry interest.

They often deepen characterization. They may add a hit of humor.

Let’s dive in and analyze some dialogue cues.

Note:  Power Words – Words that carry psychological power.

Kennedy Ryan, Loving You Always, Immersion-grad

Loving You Always1. “Walsh!” Meredith’s voice snapped a warning, like twigs underfoot.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: snapped, warning
  • Simile
  • Compelling Cadence

2. His voice was a dull-edged knife slicing clumsily through her heart, fiber by bloody fiber. Dull and slow and imprecise and drawn out. She would have preferred a quick cut, but he just kept talking.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: knife, slicing, heart bloody, dull, slow, imprecise, drawn out, quick cut
  • Amplification
  • Fresh Writing
  • Sentence Frag: Dull and slow and imprecise and drawn out.
  • Deepens relationship
  • Rhetorical Device: polysyndeton — Dull and slow and imprecise and drawn out.
  • Compelling Cadence

Kimberly Belle, The Ones We Trust, 4-time Immersion-grad

The Ones We TrustHe’s taking care to keep his tone flippant, but I can hear something darker pushing up from under the words, something much more honest and true, as if maybe he’s testing the waters, checking how I will respond.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: care, flippant, darker, pushing, honest, true, testing, checking
  • Fresh Writing
  • Deepens relationship
  • Compelling Cadence
  • Amplified Five Times
  1. something darker
  2. pushing up from under the words
  3. something much more honest and true
  4. as if maybe he’s testing the waters
  5. checking how I will respond

The Marriage Lie, by 4-time Immersion-Grad Kimberly Belle

The Marriage LieThe Marriage Lie will be released in December.

1. “Don’t you want to get that?” Claire’s voice is high and girlish, and it slices through the silence like a serrated knife.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: girlish, slices, silence, knife
  • Backloaded with Power Word: knife
  • Fresh Writing
  • Compelling Cadence – Read the dialogue cue sentence OUT LOUD:

Claire’s voice is high and girlish, and it slices through the silence like a serrated knife.

Now read it OUT LOUD without the word serrated:

Claire’s voice is high and girlish, and it slices through the silence like a knife.

Hear the missing beats before knife?

The sentence with serrated has a much stronger cadence.

2. I scream back, the words fueled by fury and frustration.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: scream, fueled, fury, frustration
  • Rhetorical Device – alliteration
  • Compelling cadence
  • Backloaded with Power Word — frustration

3. “True, but my guilty conscience and I wanted you to hear it here first. To make sure you understood the implications.”

“I try to take his emotional pulse, but his eyes are hidden behind dark wraparound sunglasses, his tone and expression guarded. ”

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: emotional, pulse, hidden, guarded Rhetorical Device – alliteration
  • Backloaded with Power Word: guarded

4. Her speech is slow and syrupy, and I’m pretty sure she’s stoned.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Power Word: Stoned
  • Rhetorical Device – alliteration – speech, slow, syrupy, sure, she’s, stoned
  • Backloaded with Power Word: Stoned.
  • Compelling Cadence

5. “Iris, if you need any help, I’m happy to–”

“I’m fine.” I grimace and pump an I-got-this confidence into my tone. “Thanks, Evan, but don’t worry. I’ll figure something out.”

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Dialogue Cue for POV character describing how she’ll imbue fake confidence in her next sentence.
  • Hyphenated-Run-On: I-got-this
  • Power Words: grimace, pump, confidence, worry

6. “Look, I don’t know where the money is. I didn’t even know about it until a few days ago.”

“Of course, you have no idea.” His words agree, but not his tone. His tone says that I know where the money is, and he’ll make good on his threat if he has to.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Tells incongruence between words and tone
  • Tone is interpreted, amplified
  • Power Words: agree, money, make good, threat

6.  There’s pity in her voice now, and I can’t listen to it for another second.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Power Words: pity, can’t listen
  • Shares how dialogue cue impacts POV character
  • Compelling Cadence.

Like Father Not Son, Kristin Meachem, 3-time Immersion-Grad

Like Father Not Son is not yet published, but I trust it will be.

1. “I didn’t see your mother at the church.” Jen’s words are sharp enough to cut and disembowel.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: sharp, cut, disembowel
  • Backloaded with Power Word: disembowel
  • Compelling Cadence

2.“What do we do now?” Tom’s voice teeters on the edge of tough and frail, unsure which way to fall.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: teeters, tough, frail, unsure, fall
  • Backloaded with Power Word: fall
  • Deepens characterization
  • Deepens relationship
  • Compelling Cadence

3. “Good to know. You’re fine.” There’s as much concern in my voice as a nurse finishing a twelve-hour shift.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Shares incongruence between dialogue and subtext
  • Power Words: concern, twelve-hour shift
  • Shares sarcasm without using the word sarcasm or sarcastic.
  • Humor Hit

4. Liz’s voice is soothing, like a soul singer encouraging you to enjoy the rhythm and the ride.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: soothing, soul, rhythm, ride
  • Double Alliteration: soothing, soul singer; rhythm, ride
  • Compelling Cadence

5. “Good for you.” Her words give me a standing ovation, but her tone says I’m a full-sized prick.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Shares incongruence between dialogue and subtext
  • Power Words: standing ovation, prick
  • Backloaded with Power Word: prick
  • Compelling Cadence
  • Deepens relationship
  • Humor Hit

6. “This isn’t about permission. This is about Tom’s happiness.” She coiled her tongue around the last ss’ and spit them out with the aggression of a cornered snake.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Shares incongruence between dialogue and subtext
  • Power Words: coiled, spit, aggression, cornered, snake
  • Backloaded with Power Word: snake
  • Rhetorical Device: simile
  • Compelling Cadence

Carry Me Home, Dorothy Adamek, 4-time Immersion-Grad

Carry Me Home1.Clipped and cool, his words hardly matched his mission.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Rhetorical Device: Double Alliteration: clipped, cool; matched, mission
  • Shared incongruence between words and subtext
  • Compelling Cadence

2.  Her voice trembled and her words sounded less confident than she’d intended.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: trembled, less confident
  • Shares POV character’s emotional state

3. His voice remained low, but the look in his eyes curdled her blood faster than any scream.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: curdled, blood, scream
  • Backloaded with Power Word: scream
  • Compelling Cadence

4. This example is two paragraphs.

“Don’t be so sure of what you can’t see, Miss Mayfield. Some battles are fought against unseen tethers.” His voice remained low, but soft. Soft enough to creep through the shadows and deep into her.

He’d loosened the end of a coil she’d pressed to her ribs since the day they’d met. Not enough for the coil to unravel. But just enough to start the damage.

Deep Edit Analysis – for the two sentences that carry the dialogue cues.

  • Power Words: creep, shadows, deep into her
  • Amplification
  • Rhetorical Device: Anadiplosis …soft. Soft…

I included the second paragraph to show how Dorothy Adamek used a dialogue cue to show the relationship intensifying.

Blog Guests — Now you have some ideas about adding power with dialogue cues.

Kudos to mega-talented Immersion grads Kimberly Belle, Kennedy Ryan, Kristin Meachem, and Dorothy Adamek. Impressive writing.

*  *  *  *  *  *

ABOUT MARGIE

Margie Lawson Head shotMargie Lawson—editor, international presenter—teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners. Margie has presented over a hundred  full day master classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and on cruises in the Caribbean.

To learn about Lawson Writer’s Academy, Margie’s 4-day Immersion Master Classes (in Denver, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Canyon Lake, Dallas, San Jose, Albuquerque, Australia, and more), her full day Master Class presentations, on-line courses, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit www.margielawson.com.

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Guest Post: Margie’s Rule #10: Rhythm and Cadence and Beats, Oh Yes…by Margie Lawson

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Guest Post: Margie’s Rule #10: Rhythm and Cadence and Beats, Oh Yes…by Margie Lawson

A big thank you to guest blogger Margie Lawson. This article first appeared on Writers in the Storm. Margie is  a world-renowned writing instructor. Check out the series of online courses offered by Lawson Writer’s Academy.

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Reading a book with flat-lined cadence is like watching a movie on mute.

Most writers know about the power of rhythm and cadence and beats. But most don’t use that power in every sentence.

A compelling cadence is more than varying sentence lengths. More than using ­­­­­stand alone words.

A compelling cadence carries power on the page. It propels readers through paragraphs and passages and pages.

Dean Koontz is one of the kings of cadence. Here’s what he shared with Brad Crawford in an interview. 

I like prose to have hidden rhythms; I like prose to have a music beneath the surface. It’s almost never recognized by the reader in a conscious way, but it is recognized unconsciously. It’s why readers feel the prose flow, why it speaks to them.

A poet once reviewed one of my books and recognized that entire passages were written in iambic pentameter. I didn’t think anyone would ever notice that. 

Different poetic meters affects us emotionally in different ways. It’s not anything anyone’s going to see, but it’s one of the great techniques to suck a reader right into the heart of the story.

Read your work out loud, with feeling, and you’ll hear what beats work well, and what beats are missing.

Many rhetorical devices are cadence-driven. Knowing which rhetorical devices boost cadence, pick up pace, make the read imperative, and 747 more cool things, loads your writing toolbox with super-powered tools.

Check out these cadence-driven examples.

 HideLisa Gardner, A two paragraph excerpt from page 9.

It was raining. He held his coat over my head. And then, tucked inside his cologne-scented jacket, he gave me my first kiss.

Arms wrapped around my waist. Dreamy smile upon my face.

 

The compelling cadence in Lisa Gardner’s second paragraph was powered by what I call an RD combo. Two rhetorical devices.  Parallelism and assonance.

I included the first paragraph so you could see—and hear—the cadence in the lead-in.

 Water for ElephantsSara Gruen, From the prologue: 

The concession stand in the center of the tent had been flattened, and in its place was a roiling mass of spots and stripes—of haunches, heels, tails, and claws, all of it roaring, screeching, bellowing, or whinnying. A polar bear towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It made contact with a llama and knocked it flat—BOOM!

Sara Gruen made that piece strong with alliteration and word play, as well as style and structure and strategy.

The Ones We Trust, Kimberly Belle, 4-time Immersion-Grad, 4 Examples

1. Gabe’s good looks are real and rugged and raw, and now that I’ve seen both brothers up close, I’d choose Gabe over Zach any day. 

RD Combo: Polysyndeton and Alliteration.

2. The silence that spins out lasts forever. It’s the kind of silence that wraps around you like a shroud, the kind that turns the air thick and solid, the kind that makes you want to hear the answer as much as you dread it.

Rhetorical Devices:  Amplification (silence) and anaphora

3. My heart races and my skin tingles and my blood pressure explodes like a grenade.

Rhetorical Devices:  Empowers visceral responses with polysyndeton and a simile.

4. “Gabe.” I wait until he falls quiet, and then I say, in my best calm-a-spooked-source voice, “She’ll call.”

Dialogue Cue freshened and empowered with a hyphenated-run-on for a cliché twist.

The Blessing of No, Megan Menard, 4-time Immersion-Grad, Three examples:

1. Luke had a machine-gun laugh that fired about every third word.

2. “That makes me feel so much better.” I hoped my sarcasm covered my lie.

3. I picked up a French fry. It was a slender blonde, tall and weepy. I named the fry Tanya and chomped off its head.

All three examples carry interest and power and are perfectly cadenced. The third example uses parallelism. And it reveals a truth in a humor hit that could make us want to laugh or cry. 

Test of FaithChrista Allan, multi-Margie-Grad

 1. “If. Faith. Can. Come. Live. With Me?” I heaved every word out of my brain and into my mouth. I felt like someone regaining consciousness in an unfamiliar room or house or life.

Christa Allan stylized that dialogue by using a Period. Infused. Sentence. That’s what I named it.  Her dialogue cue is amplified, amplified, amplified stellar.

She used an RD combo in the last sentence: polysyndeton and zeugma.

2. That Logan could embrace his inner dork made him all the more likeable. If I’d idled at likeable and not throttled up to loveable, I wouldn’t have risked crashing into the wall. This dinner was the Indy 500 version of returning to the track after a pit stop, except that the finish line was Logan, and there was only one first place.

Ah… Metaphors and power words and hope all themed, propelled by a compelling cadence. 

The Edge of Lost, Kristina McMorris, multi-Margie-Grad 

1. Murphy swayed, as if riding the internal waves of his liquor.

Wow. A fresh take on a drunken swagger.

2. Mealtime together was like wading through a swamp: one wrong step could pull you under.

Smart writing. An amplified simile. Perfectly cadenced.

Risk, Skye Jordan, 3-time Immersion-Grad  

1. “Julia.” The use of her name was forceful and final, and oddly intimate.

Love the way Joan Swan, writing as Sky Jordan, used alliteration and boosted the cadence with the unexpected juxtaposition—oddly intimate.

2. Julia cocked her hip, crossed her arms, and gave Noah a clear, one-wrong-word-and-you’ll-regret-it stare.

Two hits of body language, parallelism, followed by a look amplified with a hyphenated-run-on. Fun and powerful.

Twice in a Blue Moon, Laura Drake, Immersion-Grad

1. “This business will stand on its own.” Her voice was as hard as the untilled dirt in the vineyard.

Themed dialogue cue. Amplified simile.

2. The remnants of adrenaline in her system congealed to a sticky wad of anger.

Powerful visceral response. Fresh. Backloaded.

Next example, two paragraphs:

3. “What do you mean, nothing? You’re looking at me like I’m a mouse turd on toast.”

In her hesitation, time bloated, looming and ugly. Something was wrong. His heart tried to hammer its way out of his chest. Bad wrong.

Stimulus: Fresh, accusatory dialogue.

Response: Expanded time. Amplified with negative connotations and a visceral response. Backloaded. Punched up cadence.

You have thousands of ways to capture your story on the page. Crafting a compelling cadence will capture your reader too. And you’ll take your writing from good to stellar.

ABOUT MARGIE
Margie photoMargie Lawson—editor, international presenter—teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners. Margie has presented over ninety full day master classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

To learn about Lawson Writer’s Academy, Margie’s 4-day Immersion Master Classes, her full day Master Class presentations, on-line courses, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit www.MargieLawson.com.