Reading Rage Tuesday: Your clever writing slays me. Literally, I am dying.

6 March 2012 by 35 Comments

In this brave new world of reading and writing, I’ve seen some writers complaining that everything’s been “done.” Southern Gothic? Done. Robot fiction? Done. Transsexual coming-of-age Cthulhu erotica? Done, done, done. Everyone is writing about everything now, man, and it’s, like, really hard to figure out how to be cool and different.

Come and get it, big boy.

Some writers have turned to various literary devices to make sure that they seem like they’re on the cutting edge of new literature. If you’re not familiar with literary devices, they range from the basic (foreshadowing) to the subtle (dramatic irony–not hipster irony) to the smack-you-in-the-face-with-it (repetition of the same phrase so many times in a novel that you never want to see those words in that combination ever again); a device, basically, is anything the author uses “on purpose” to get their point across. Literary devices can, when used properly, be great tools in a writer’s arsenal. When used improperly, the writer will come off looking like a tool.

Take repetition, for example. Various rhetorical devices employ the repetition of a word or phrase because repetition can be powerful–the entire basis of branding is repetition of logos and slogans, worming into a consumer’s brain and making sure that they’re more likely to buy your product when they’re out shopping. Chuck Palahniuk used repetition very effectively when he wrote the book Fight Club. “I am Jack’s ________.” The rules of fight club. Phrases like, “On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” Repetition works well in this book because it serves a function in the story; Tyler Durden uses propaganda techniques to build an army, and one of the cornerstones of propaganda is repetition.

It worked so well for Palahniuk, in fact, that he used it in just about every book that he ever wrote. I fell less in love with this technique over time, especially as it began to seep into books by other writers who wanted to seem edgy and cool like Chuck. Even Stephen King uses it, especially in his latest book, 11/22/63. (He also used it in the Dark Tower series, but more effectively there, and with greater necessity since it’s a long series.) Overuse of rhetorical device can lead to reader burnout, also known as “hey, if I hear that fucking phrase one more time, I’m going to take this book and bludgeon you to death with it.”

It doesn’t stop with repetition, though. Some writers are doing anything possible to stand out from the crowd. I can only imagine what those brainstorming sessions are like: “What if . . . the story is about a boy. No, a girl. No, a boy who thinks he’s a girl. Only he’s not either one, he’s  . . . an alien! A zombie alien. Who falls in love with . . . Elvis. No, an Elvis commemorative plate. And he only talks in Elvis lyrics because he loves Elvis so much. And he will go to the underworld to see the real Elvis, only Elvis isn’t really dead and he has to go find him. This will be great because nobody has ever written anything like this before.” Pro tip: if someone has never written anything before, there might be a good reason.

(Although, there’s a decent chance that I would actually read that book. I’m kind of a sucker for Elvis.)

When did writing become a game in which the writers try to be more clever than the other writers? I have rarely come away from a book thinking, “Well, that was just the best book; the writer was really clever in his execution.” No, I come away from a book laughing, or crying, or thinking really hard, and those are the best books. A comment a few weeks ago on this very blog lamented that “The problem with the current group of writers is that we–I are–am so focused on being different from the old style of writing that the new styles of writing are becoming cliche. I struggle almost daily to come up with ideas that aren’t labeled stereotypical but every angle’s been beaten to death with a stick, raised from the dead, zombified then been hacked to death all over again.” I wanted to cry when I read this. As a reader, I don’t want an “angle,” I want a good story. A good story is something that everyone has, because everyone has a unique set of experiences; it’s a matter of being able to tell the story–which, granted, is difficult. I won’t say that it’s not, I know it is. It’s harder to tell a good story than to use crackerjack writing devices, which is probably why we get fewer good stories and more hocus-pocus.

I also don’t buy this business of having to write something new and different. One of the great things about literature is its continuity; literature builds on top of past works, creating a dialogue and a sense of timelessness. This isn’t to say that regurgitating a lot of cliches and work by other authors is going to earn someone a Nobel–at least, I hope not–but it’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel. You’ll have visionaries that can reinvent the wheel. Mark Danielewski. Chuck Palahniuk (well, Fight Club). Anthony Burgess. Markus Zusak. Mostly, though, you take the concept of the wheel and then you build on it; you can do any kind of book you want if you start with a solid foundation.

See? If you try too hard to come up with something edgy and interesting, you'll panic and staple your hand to your face.

I would really like to see writers move away from the usage of these oh-so-ingenious writing devices and crazy obtuse angles that detract from the story. How about you guys? What books and authors do you find a smidgen too clever? What clever books work? Let me know in the comments!


Susie is the Bitch-in-Chief at IB and is also a contributor at Book Riot. She's an ice cream connoisseur, an art fanatic, a cat-mommy of three, and a wife. She runs the @thebooksluts Twitter account and may be slightly addicted.

35 thoughts on “Reading Rage Tuesday: Your clever writing slays me. Literally, I am dying.

  1. I completely agree. What’s even worse is when my professors tell me to be more edgy with my writing. What the hell? First you teach me all the tools that the greatest writers have used and then you yell at me for using them? Today’s society is much too hipster for my liking. What does it matter if we use the same devices as Shakespeare? That doesn’t make us copycats; that means we’re effectively using tools that have been known to work well.

    • Yes, exactly. I mean, it all comes down to individual skill, but there’s really no reason to throw out tools that have stood the test of time. Especially since up until very recently, all of literature has been connected by threads.. since almost all writers had education in the classics, they knew about the threads and picked them up when they sat down to write their own books.

      Damn hipsters.

      • Excellent. Prose and technique have their place (Margaret Atwood Blind Assassin) but nothing will ever beat out a good story! You nailed it.

  2. Well, on the side of overdone techniques, the one phrase I never want to read anywhere ever again is: “at the tender age of…” There’s something so gag-inducingly cheesy about describing a character that way — it’s beating the reader over the head with “hey, this character was very young and vulnerable and impressionable and sensitive when this thing happened to her/him, so that thing had a serious/most likely negative impact on the character, poor dear!”

    P.S. That Valentine’s Day comic is brilliant. :-D

  3. Personally, when I sit down to write a story… I tend to write the story I *want* to read. Too difficult to keep up with trends, what will be popular, trendy, edgy, cool, whatever. Much better just to write something that you know at least one person will enjy :)

  4. I know I mentioned it on your Twitter feed the other day, but I’ve been reading The Hunger Games (slow going as busy as my job has been). So far it’s keeping me engaged, but I really hate the combination of a first person narration with present tense. Obviously, it’s not bad enough that I want to put it down. However, it keeps pulling me out of the book’s world because I’m distracted by the ridiculous picture in my head of the main character telling me the story out loud as she’s living it.

  5. You see, you’re reading the wrong books. :p
    On a slightly more serious note, I hated English Lit in school. English Lit is why I hate Dickens (who probably doesn’t deserve it). As a side effect of this hatred, I wouldn’t know a literary device if it hit me in the face with a sack of cliches.
    There seems to be less pressure out here in Genre Land to be clever about the writing. The key points of an urban fantasy (or *shudder* YA fantasy) are relationships, setting, and story. If they’re told well, that’s really a major bonus, but the books are read for the characters and what happens to them.
    You guys are literary fiction mavens, but you’re having a rant about something which is (I think anyway) the very basis of that genre. Broaden your horizons! There’s way more story-driven, exciting material out there in alternate areas. (That’s not a plug. I don’t do plugs.)

    • Er.. well, I hate to differ, but my point is that rhetorical device is not–or should not–be the basis for creating literary fiction ^_^ And when literary fiction is done well, it’s not at all about clever writing. Many of the best classics are just stories.. told as well as the writer could tell them :)

      I really can’t get much into fantasy books. It’s not that I shun them as being lesser or whatever, I just don’t personally find them appealing.

  6. I love this: “See? If you try to hard to come up with something edgy and interesting, you’ll panic and staple your hand to your face.”

    No one wants to staple their hand to their face. At least I don’t think that they do.

  7. I’ve decided to take a stand recently. I refuse to read anything–no matter how touted as the New Best Thing–if the author doesn’t use conventional punctuation. Especially quotation marks! I am sick and tired of those who feel that it is the reader’s responsibility to figure out if some statement or the other was spoken aloud or thought and who did the speaking/thinking.

    OK. That’s my rant for today.

    • I’m really on the fence about this one. Some writers make it work–I’ve never had a problem with Cormac McCarthy not using punctuation, for example. And for some writers, it does not work at all.

      • to be fair to Mr. McCarthy. . . it’s only SOME punctuation he eschews. I don’t think he has issues with periods, for example.

        But you have to admit the whole: “words,” pronoun said. convention is pretty messed up.

        • I don’t care as much about the “pronoun said” bit, I just like the quotation marks so I don’t get halfway into a paragraph and realize someone is talking and have to start again with my newfound information, haha. But, like I said, I’ve never had a problem with McCarthy’s shunning of traditional punctuation, because he doesn’t confuse me as to when people are talking or not.

  8. When you mentioned repetition I immediately thought of Vonnegut, who is one of my favorite writers of all time and the reason that I write. “So it goes.”

  9. What a great post. The more I read and the more I work to improve my writing, the more I feel the basics must be there first: solid plot, characters, setting, voice. The clever reinvention of any literary wheel should be in the service of those basics. I love cleverness and invention in fiction, but if that’s all it is — and doesn’t add to the story in meaningful way — it drives me up the wall.
    Basics-of-writing-without-reinventing-wheel = possibly boring book.
    Reinventing-wheel-without-basics-of-writing = insufferable.

  10. Stephen King really was guilty of beating his own dead horse in that last one. I was so tired of the word obdurate by the time I finished that I was ready to crotch punch the next person who used it.

    I can’t get into Palahniuk. I’ve tried and tried and finally I’ve given up. I feel like he tries so hard to be clever that it just distracts me from the story. I don’t hate his stories, just the way he tells them. [shrug]

    • I gave up on Anne Rice a long, long time ago. When Interview with a Vampire first came out, I got so tired of “preternaturally” I couldn’t finish the book.

      As for the being-too-clever-for-his/her-own-good thing, The one that springs to mind is James Ellroy. Enjoyed some of his earlier work, but by the time I got to White Jazz, I think he was pretty well smitten with his own hype. Sure minimalism is fine…but there has to be a bit of there there or it’s unreadable.

  11. Pingback: Reading Rage Tuesday: Your clever writing slays me. Literally, I am dying. | Insatiable Booksluts

  12. I don’t want to be an overly clever, gimmicky, angly writer. Okay, so maybe angly is not a word. I just hope that I’m not over-doing any of my “devices,” whichever ones I happen to be using. After reading this blog, I’m more sure of that than I ever was. I just want to write good stories that make people want to read more. Some days, I feel like I’m on track, but I suppose I get nervous after seeing so much out there that seems to be more trendy that my style of writing. Wish I had some actual book examples to offer about what works and what doesn’t. Off the top of my head, I got nothing. Must read more.

  13. If I hear the phrase “tour de force” to describe a novel one more time, I am going to burn the review. That phrase should be banished forever.

    • Yes – I dislike that overused phrase with great intensity. (Points to whoever can catch the obscure reference there ;)

      I see phrases like that and think, did the reviewer really do more than skim this book? Is there nothing more creative he/she can say about it?

  14. Ultimately I think it really does boil down to: good story/bad story, good writing/bad writing. If you’re a shit writer you can’t gimmick your way into a good book.

    • True. I just think people who are decent writers can become better writers if they lose the gimmicky crap and actually focus on writing.

  15. The Clues to a Great Story by Andrew Stanton:

    “there’s no denying that Stanton has a true talent as a story teller. Case in point: Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Toy Story 1-3, Monsters Inc. and more.
    Stanton put that reputation to the test recently, taking the stage at TED to give a talk about “The Clues to a Great Story.” Unlike his Pixar films, his talk does get into some NSFW language. Like the films, it’s enlightening and incredibly watchable.”
    – excerpt from

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