avoiding stereotype

Twelve Posts on Writing, Day Two: Avoiding the overdone

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Oh, the wonders of the human brain.

Did you know there are about 100 billion neurons in your brain? That’s the same number as there are stars in our galaxy.

Did you know your brain generates more electrical impulses in one day than by all the telephones in the world?

Did you know that on an average day, your brain generates 70,000 thoughts?


Also awesome: These three-pound masses of grey matter are efficient machines, firing off synapses to conjure up in a nanosecond a word for your Scrabble game, the phone number of the friend you need to call, the next scene in your novel.

This efficiency can work against us, though, as writers.

While you write, your brain supplies you with ideas, words and images. But being the efficient machine it is, your brain uses the synaptic pathways of least resistance. It selects the images and words it’s seen and used many times. Like reaching into the front of a filing cabinet, your brain reaches for the easiest, most familiar thing first.

Need a bank robber in your scene? I bet your first thought involves a ski mask and a note slipping across a teller’s counter.

How about a businessman? Did you think clean-shaven, dark suit, power tie, carrying a briefcase and a medium latte?

Or perhaps a high school cheerleader. Is she blonde with perfect hair, legs and teeth? Is she in love with the quarterback of the football team?

This idea applies not just to character, but to plot, setting, dialogue, diction…pretty much every aspect of your work. If you’re not careful, your brain will lead you to write the book you (and everyone else) have read a million times.

What can you do to avoid writing the overdone? Examine each image, detail, plot point your brain offers. In other words, filter your ideas. Reject your ideas.

When you need a bank robber and your brain gives you ski mask with gun in pocket, you must stop and consider. Is that image too familiar? If yes, reject and go to the next image. If the next idea is also too familiar, reject again and go for the third idea. The fourth. The fifth. And so on.

If you run with the first idea that comes to mind, you’ll end up writing what you already know, what readers have already read, what agents and editors see too often. You’ll write the overdone, the tired, the familiar, the stereotype, the cliche.

Instead, train your brain to reach further back into the filing cabinet of your subconscious until you find a fresh idea. Sometimes you’ll succeed at this while writing your first draft; sometimes you’ll catch them on the rewrites. If you do this — if you reject the first, second, third, even fourth ideas that come to mind — you will write unique stories. Interesting stories. Stories that capture readers. Stories that get published.