An Idiots Guide To Writing – Part II – Avoiding Cliche

This is the second in a series by James – Read the first here

Believe it or not, I have had several girlfriends in my life. I know – accomplishment. Six or seven years ago I was sat with an ex’ named Catherine. I was happily reading Storm of Iron, lost in Graham McNeil’s narrative when Cat piped up.

‘Why do you read that rubbish?’

My feelings were hurt. I consider myself quite well read and I didn’t feel I had to justify having some down time and enjoying a bit of mindless bolter-porn and hack-n-slash. I probably said something to this effect. I don’t honestly remember, it was years ago. I do however remember her response.

‘I bet I can turn to any page at random and find some shocking diatribe about how Commander Derpwad addressed his Derpmarines, whilst rain howled in the background and lightening flared in the sky.’

Surely enough, she was right. OK Storm of Iron wasn’t the best novel to try and convince my then girlfriend that the Black Library wasn’t full of no-talent hacks, but it serves us well in this instance. It is a cliché gold-mine.
Now this article isn’t going to be a Graham McNeill bash fest – for that go see Dave’s article on Angel Exterminatus. This is supposed to be helpful. Dave doesn’t do things to help, just to spread hate. This is an article on avoiding cliché.

What is cliché?

‘A cliché or cliche is an expression, idea or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning, or effect, and even, to the point of being trite or irritating.’
The Elements of Technical Writing

One of the main problems with writing for a fandom like Warhammer is that much of the background borrows heavily from elements of other artistic works. Not only does it borrow from Tolkien fantasy, popular sci-fi tropes and myth; it breeds its own grim-dark atmosphere. It breeds a hothouse of ideas which have been used, reused and ultimately tired out.

The idea that ‘there is only war!’ is tiring. It makes forging narratives difficult and turns stories into blood filled hack-n-slash demi-battle reports with no respite. This is where Storm of Iron comes in. It has its fans and it has its detractors, but the real problem is it reads like a blow by blow account of a game of 40K.

‘The rapid firing of automatic weapons grew louder as he strode through the tunnel, combi-bolter at the ready. A group of human soldiers ran towards him, dropping their electro-prods and clubs as they ran in terror from the rock-face. Throngs of slaves fled alongside them. Forrix shot them down in a hail of bolts, stepping over their shredded bodies as he fought his way forward.’
Storm of Iron

It feels like a turn sequence. The Imperial Guard allies failed their rally check and the CSM HQ moved forward to get into combat.
What am I getting at? Well in the world of Warhammer the overused element is war. To avoid writing cliché drivel you need to do what the best Black Library authors do. They build a world and populate it with characters; they make you care about what happens to these characters. The action is incidental – it matters because it happens to Eisenhorn or Malcharion, Lokken or Gaunt. Build time into your stories for your characters to grow, don’t throw them from combat to combat and expect your readers to care what happens to them.
In the grim darkness of the 41st millennium, there isn’t only war. There are spaces to explore between the battlefields and as much as the 40K universe is a hothouse of recycled ideas, it doesn’t mean you can’t be innovative.

Write a noir detective novel about a Commissar investigating a murder in his regiment. Write a novel about an Imperial noble living on a frontier world with increasing pressures being piled upon him to join the Tau Empire. You don’t need constant combat to create interest, intrigue and excitement. Look at Abnett’s Only in Death; who would have thought a Stephen King-esque horror/40K hybrid would work – but it did.

Take risks.

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