Three literary devices that really cheese me off

If I had to write a complete list of all the things creative types do that really give me the jitches, I'd be here all day. So, in my own therapeutical interests, here's three literary devices that cheese me off no end. What cheeses you off?

If I had to write a complete list of all the things creative types do that really give me the jitches, I’d be here all day. So, in my own therapeutical interests, here’s three literary devices that cheese me off no end. What cheeses you off?

1. Dreams

Yes, I know we all have them, and some of them are even interesting, but if I read one more novel featuring an extended description of a character’s dreams, I’m seriously going to go postal on someone’s arse.

Of course, the ultimate abuse of the dream device (aside from Inception, but that’s another blog post within a blog post) is the one where the character wakes up only to find that ‘it was all a dream’ but there are many, many minor infractions which, taken together, constitute the first thing that really cheeses me off.

Why is this such a problem for me? Well, mostly because if you’re writing about a fictional character, the chances of you being able to access their dreams are pretty much nil. But, more importantly, the reader has no choice but to ‘sit up and pay attention’ during the dream-device sequence because, you know, it must be significant if the character is dreaming about it.

But usually it’s not. In fact, the dream sequence is more often used in place of a sex scene or an actual conversation (excluding, of course, a conversation in which the character describes their dreams, which would just be mind-bogglingly annoying). Stop it. Next.

2. Poetic description

Maybe this is the retired poetry journal editor in me speaking here, but if I read another poem that substitutes mere description for emotion, intelligence or political commitment, you guessed it—I’m going to be pretty annoyed.

You probably know the drill: poem with abstract title such as ‘Night sky’ begins with description of said sky and never really shifts out of first gear. Two or three stanzas in, you realize there’s nothing significant about the sky at all, at least not in this poet’s universe.

You feel the need to ‘move on’, arriving at the conclusion of the poem only to find that the night sky in question signifies something deep, or utterly obtuse, that the poem itself cannot even begin to contain. Which begs the question: why write the poem at all, then?

The formula for this kind of poetic description is pretty straightforward:

1. An [inanimate object] does something to [some other object].
2. Repeat (1.) as often as required. 
3. Concluding statement in which [inanimate object] fades away ...

Here’s an example which, for the sake of not slagging off a fellow poet, I have taken from my own poem, ‘Desmond’ (and which, in my defence, was actually written over 25 years ago, when I knew nothing about poetry, poetic devices, or the things that really cheese me off). Read this with me:

The ivy wastes hold yesterday's rain
& crawl like a bereaved remainder.

See what I did there? Don’t ever do that yourself. Next.

3. The lone character trait

As mentioned at the start of this post, it’s very difficult to limit myself to just three devices that give me the jitches, but if I had to nominate the one that really gets my blood boiling, leaving me seething for days at a time, it would have to be the lone character trait.

What do I mean by this? It’s pretty simple, actually: I’m referring to characters in stories, novels, films and plays who, due to their limited roles in said literary forms, are not fully fleshed out at all, and are only identifiable by a single character trait, be it a lazy eye, a limp, bad breath, anything.

Of course, I’m aware that all stories need cameos and bit-part appearances, otherwise writers would have to spend inordinate (and unnecessary) amounts of time writing the back stories of characters whose only role in the action might be to pour coffee, or drive a cab. I get all that.

What cheese me off is when writers, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they only have one way in which to refer to a character, do so over and over again to the point where we, as readers, suffer some kind of Pavlovian response.

Oh, we think as we read along, here comes that girl who works at the bar who, when we were first introduced to her, was wearing a bandanna. I wonder what she’s wearing this time?

*Cue reference to same bandanna.*

It’s all just way too predictable, and lazy. Seriously, people, I want to read dazzling stories, poems and novels that keep me guessing, not tired and turgid set pieces that a computer could have written for me. Is it too much to ask to just try and be a bit extraordinary every now and then?

Anything less just cheeses me off.

What do you think? Am I being to harsh on my fellow creative types? What literary devices give you the jitches?

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