A few times per week, I offer unsolicited writing advice to anyone who will listen. Sometimes, I even follow it myself.
When I was in college, I once had a creative writing workshop teacher kick off her semester by making a list of things we were not allowed to write about. She was a graduate student, and perhaps a little unqualified to be teaching us, but nevertheless, she scrawled a lengthy list on the dry erase board in an effort to make us better writers. It included:
- No happy endings
- No romance
- No dream sequences
- No murder
- No rape
- No death of a parent
- No death of a lover
- No unexpected pregnancy
- No funerals
- No therapist’s offices
- No natural disasters
- No terminal illnesses
- No vampires, werewolves, wizards or fantastical elements of any kind
I stared at the list in awe. All I could think was, “Um…what’s left?”
When I got home that night and sat down with the intention of writing my short story for workshop, I was stumped. By attempting to steer us in the direction of non-cliched topics and original plot points, she had unknowingly given an entire class of students writer’s block. This brings me to my tip:
Tip #3: Nothing is off limits.
I firmly believe that in the creative process, instead of setting up boundaries, we should knock them down. By saying “no” to an entire list of potentially interesting storylines, it doesn’t give you the creative freedom to explore, develop, and craft your own plot. When you’re just trying to get something on a page to see what sticks, don’t give yourself a million reasons why it’s not original. Save the word ‘No’ for when you edit.
You know what? Some of the best books I’ve ever read steal elements from that list, but they work because the writer approached the topic with a fresh point of view, a lovable character, and a relatable narrative. In fact, I think every item on that list should be considered fair game, because every bullet point is an interesting plot line in itself.
We spend so much time avoiding cliches that we forget to learn from them. In fact, if you’re new to fiction writing, I strongly encourage you to write a scene that tackles each one of those topics. You have to learn the rules of writing before you can break them, and I think that applies to cliches too. Practice writing the scene that everyone has read before, and then figure out how to make it your own. See, don’t you feel more inspired than if I told you ‘no’?