One way of getting a grip on this is through style. It doesn’t have to be unique to you, but it does need to convey, not just what you want to say, but the spirit of it too. It’s about developing your natural tendencies and polishing them to be the best they can be.
Unfortunately there are a few errors that can get in the way of good style. One example is in the use of clichés, which have a tendency to deaden style.
Some examples might be:
Leave no stone unturned
The luck of the devil (or the Irish)
What’s done is done
No good crying over spilt milk
Pangs of remorse.
The silvery light of the moon
He stood stock still
Tears stung her eyes
Her heart pounded
Petite and vivacious
White as snow
Black as coal
Soft as silk (or swansdown)
I’m sure you can think of loads more for yourself. And this doesn’t mean you can never use them, but if you do, you need to be sure exactly why you are using them. For instance, perhaps you might use them in dialogue, maybe to show that a character doesn’t have much education, or is an incurable romantic (there you are, there’s another one!). This is where the clichés belong to the character and not the writer.
There are also cliché situations, for instance:
Beginning an novel or short story with someone looking in a mirror
A suicide note on the mantelpiece
Someone dropping a glass (or anything) when they hear bad news.
The story that ends ‘it was all a dream’
And don’t forget cliché characters. These and the cliché situation are often referred to as ‘tropes’. The usual meaning for trope is an overdone literary device. Think back to Hollywood movies in the forties. How many Westerns have a dark-haired, often Hispanic, saloon girl. She’s kind and well-meaning (the’ tart with the heart of gold’ trope), but usually gets shot protecting either the hero or the golden-haired heroine. Or the gangster/bandit/highwayman/contract killer who has a change of heart, but who has to die by the end because we’ve come to like him and we don’t like to think of him languishing in jail. Up to a point, these tropes help us identify with the film or book. We’re comfortable, we know that right will prevail in the end. But haven’t they been done to death? Don’t we groan when we see it happening all over again?
Here are some more:
The handsome prince
The body in the wardrobe/deep freeze. (anybody remember Francis Durbridge?)
Twins brought up apart
The butler did it
Finding a long lost letter
The unloved fat boy
The solitary geek
The femme fatale
The picture/ornament under the sink that turns out to be worth a fortune
The broken down horse rescued from slaughter that turns out to be a famous show-jumper (I did that one!).
The country house murder with the final dénouement in the drawing room (only Agatha Christie can get away with this because she was among the first to do it).
Crime novels abound with them, as I know to my cost. How often is the body found by a dog-walker? The trouble is, that’s very often how it happens in real life. So do it once if you must, but no more than that.
Fantasy and horror stories also abound with them: the room suddenly going cold, the dog growling into the corner, the window bursting open, the lights suddenly going out… there are people who do this brilliantly, but today it’s all a bit old hat.
One simple adjective to describe all of the above is ‘corny’. Try not to fall into the trap. This isn’t to say you can’t use clichés or tropes, but if you do, you need to find some way of making them fresh. Maybe you can use them but subvert them in some way. Maybe Puss-in-Boots’ feet are being rubbed raw by the boots and he refuses to walk any further, maybe Sleeping Beauty is male and is rescued by the princess. Existing examples might be many of the female characters in George R.R. Martins’ A Song of Ice and Fire’, where, for instance the little girl Arya Stark, orphaned and abandoned becomes, first of all, an adept swordswoman and then a trained assassin, while Brienne of Tarth is a typical ‘knight in shining armour’, displaying all the knightly values of honour and chivalry, yet is a woman, and mocked for her knightly attributes by the men around her.
But whatever voice or style you settle on, be sure to make it so fresh that your reader wants to turn every page. After all, that’s why we do it.