At least he died with his boots on.

Any writer who starts to write “At least he died with his boots on” has got to know it’s an old cliché and doesn’t belong in his/her story unless s/he is writing a spoof. Assuming it’s not a spoof and assuming it’s important to say something that begins with the words “At least,” the author needs to take a breath and come up with something new to say.

And no, it’s not “At least he died doing what he loved” or “At least he took out ten bad guys with him.” I’m pretty sure “At least he died with his pants down” isn’t going to work either because that’s not new either.

Maybe it’s best not to have a character say, “At least he died. . .” like anything that smacks of that old cliché can possibly excuse or minimize what happened.

Moments ago, I came across the following: “The .44 was crap for long-range shooting, but Ramon liked. . .”

Where do you think that sentence is going? I knew before I turned the page because such sentences always end with “but Ramon”–or whoever–“liked working up close and personal.” Yawn.

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Now here’s something that’s almost a cliché, though the exact words vary, “Detective Smith walked into the house where he three bodies that all looked like they’d been fed through the wood chipper in ‘Fargo.'” No, that’s not the cliché even though it sounds like one. What detective Smith actually said to his partner, Detective Jones, was “Jones, this looks like a home invasion gone bad.”

I’m really tired of that line. In the first place, it makes no sense. How can a home invasion go bad when it’s already bad from the beginning? Okay okay, maybe the invaders didn’t expect the homeowners to be waiting in the front hall with enough AK-47s to sink a battleship. Hmm, I think I’ve read that line before. Anyhow, so instead of killing the homeowners and grabbing the priceless Picasso (the painting, not the artist) off the wall, the invaders get smoked. Right, we’ve seen the word “smoked” before in this context.

Once upon a time, a reviewer (who wrote a wonderful review of one of my books) said, “I was just about to ding Campbell for using an ancient cliché when he said, ‘She shook loose her long hair…’ but I can’t because he took a sharp turn here and wrote ‘that mixed with the stuff of clouds.'” There are a million clichés that begin with a woman shaking loose her hair. I don’t know why they’re always going that. But if they have to do it in your book, they don’t have to do it in the same old way we’ve seen a thousand times before.

Fresh and knew just isn’t that hard to say.  So if you really need to say, “At least he died with,” then forget the boots and doing what he loved, and say “at least he died with a raspberry popsicle in his mouth” or “with a spare coral snake in his back pocket.”

See, those lines sound factory fresh and I’m willing to bet you’ve never seen either of them before.

Malcolm

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