The Five Worst Novice Writing Clichés

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?

Images: DepositPhotos
Seen on TV: © valentint
Deus Ex Machina: © yellow2j
Kitten: © simply
To Be Continued: © iqoncept
Stereotype: © Rawpixel

2 thoughts on “The Five Worst Novice Writing Clichés

  1. SherryH

    Good ones, all. And of course each genre has its own cliches and tropes, some more rife with them than others.

    I think a lot of them come as a result of lazy writing. You’ve written all the exciting parts and your editor is nattering at you about deadlines/word count? Time for some handwaving, pronto! I’ve noticed that even some established writers consistently have trouble sticking the ending.

    I wonder if the tendency toward the neverending saga comes courtesy of television, where at the end of every episode the writers/producers press the reset button, restoring the characters to their default states, ready for next week’s episode. It’s not universal–some shows’ characters grow and change over the seasons, but it’s pretty common.

    To your last, add characters with disabilities. Either they’re there to save the world with their special uniqueness, or they’re there for the main character to rescue. It’s rare, especially in beginning writing, for characters with disabilities to be fully realized characters, unless the story is specifically about them *overcoming* their disability. To be fair, I don’t think that cliche is limited to beginning writers.

    1. funny Post author

      Yes, the person with a disability is an ideal target for the cliche and the sappy. Part of the problem, I expect, is that many people do not KNOW a disabled person very well. And so they either gloss over the character’s humanity or inflict various ridiculousness upon him or her.

      One reason, in the Amazon environment, for the Neverending Story is the belief, common among genre writers, that X. Y, or Z genre is to readers as CrackerJacks are to moviegoers. Some writers are convinced that if you can just market one or two (fill in the blank: romance, urban fantasy, sci-fi, zombie, detective, role-playing gamer…) books featuring your characters, your setting, and your premise, from then on out you’ll be set: your fans will buy up every new tale you spin, no matter how repetitive.

      And it IS true that some genre stories pile on the readers with novel after novel after novel. But only so many stories can succeed in that. And frankly, I suspect the number of such stories is more limited than we imagine. The world is not, after all, overrun with latter-day Hercule Poirots.

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