Recently I was asked to opine upon the five worst writing clichés that I encounter in reading and editing.
It’s a big question: the clichés go on and on. How many ways, in genre writing, can you tell the same story without beginning to sound a little stale? In nonfiction, most writers emit little that is new and much that is familiar. And there’s the question of whether the inquiring mind means cliché on the line level, or cliché on the structural or plot level.
On the line level?
1. I would say that “in today’s modern society” takes the proverbial cake. Note how you can’t even describe it without invoking yet another cliché.
“In today’s modern society” is a space-filling freshman-compism. However, just the other day I saw it used in an academic paper by someone who had attained the Ph.D. and was emitting what one might expect to be new and fresh knowledge. Well. One might expect it until one realized the mind behind the paper thinks in cliché.
On the structural or plot level?
2. Deus ex machina has got to be one of the worst offenders. The last three novels I’ve read have placed their heroes in terrifying predicaments, only to rescue them with the proverbial cavalry. When you design a standard plot, as you know, the plot line rises through several crises or turning points, in which the characters become tangled in some sort of conflict. The thing is, the protagonist needs to get herself out of the predicament on her own. She or he cannot be rescued by a merciful god, saved in the nick of time by the police, relieved when some pursuer is struck by lightning. How many times can God drop down out of heaven to rescue people, anyway?
3. Secretly, bad guys and bad girls are wannabe nice folks, eh? The whore (or thug) with a heart of gold is a sweet thought, but alas, another cliché, sort of like cute kittens, puppies, and baby armadillos on Facebook.
4. Endless sagas that go on and on through novel after novel. I’m guilty of this myself. Deep in the bowels of my computer is the plot outline of yet another Fire-Rider story. How much can one say about these folks’ adventures, anyway? Occasionally you’ll hit it big with a character that readers love, such as, say, Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. That’s the time to keep writing until the world runs out of paper and bandwidth. But for most genre novels that appear on Amazon, a series is just an excuse to keep turning out the same story over and over. It becomes its own cliché.
5. Black (Native American, Latino, Asian, immigrant, whatEVER) characters who save the day through their pure angelic virtue and unassailable wisdom. People who are members of ethnic groups other than your own are people, just like you. They are not different, at base, from other human beings. Each of us is an amalgam of the good, the bad; the wise, the foolish. To deny this is to flatten the character — to show the character as more than human is to show him as less than human. And to my mind, it patronizes. Give your characters equal-opportunity humanity. Please.
What are your “favorite” clichés?
Seen on TV: © valentint
Deus Ex Machina: © yellow2j
Kitten: © simply
To Be Continued: © iqoncept
Stereotype: © Rawpixel