Top 10 Storytelling Cliches Writers Need To Stop Using

Cliché is the enemy of good writing. 

We, as writers, are trained to kill clichéd phrases in sentences. But that's not the only place they can hide—they can infect the spaces between the words, too.

Clichés can infect storytelling techniques.

Need to build some tension? Have a time bomb with a digital readout slowly ticking down to zero!

Is your narrator a dick? Blame it on abusive parents!

Want to get all writerly in conveying the plot? Put it in a dream!

These are storytelling devices that pop up again and again, crutches for the writer to lean on and help move the story along without actually having to stretch their abilities. What follows are, to my mind, the worst of the bunch. 

1. Characters describing themselves in mirrors

Why it's easy: Describing a character when you're writing in the third person is pretty easy when the narrative voice is omniscient. But first person is a bit of a challenge—how do you convey what your character looks like without making them sound vain and self-obsessed? Wait, how about using a mirror!?

Why it's a cop out: It's lazy, it's been done to death, and anyway, no one looks in a mirror and takes stock of all their features in severe detail. I would argue you don't need to belabor the description of your main character anyway. You can hit the big points—if your character's defining trait is a deformity or a hairstyle—there are ways to work that into the narrative. For the rest of if, you have to trust the reader. First that they don't need to be coddled, and second, that they'll project something onto the character. 

2. Broadcasting an upcoming plot twist

Why it's easy: Sometimes you need to give a little weight to a character who's been sitting around and doing nothing, or make sure the reader is on his or her toes. What's wrong at a little hint at things to come?  

Why it's a cop out: This is the "little did he know" principle of storytelling. In The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown, toward the end of the book, the albino monk is captured by the story's heroes. And it says—I'm paraphrasing here—something like: "Little did he know that he'd soon turn the tables." Leading me to ask: Why would you broadcast a plot twist? Especially in a book that's classified as a thriller?! Dan Brown isn't the only author to commit this crime. It's just the first example to come to me. 

3. Blaming bad behavior on bad parenting

Why it's easy: It's hard to justify bad behavior. If your narrator is a dick, you still want him/her to be a redeemable dick, or at least someone damaged enough that their dickishness isn't so far-fetched. You know what makes people into dicks that you can't really question, you just have to accept? Bad parents! 

Why it's a cop out: Almost every fucked-up character in fiction can trace his or her issues back to being sexually abused or slapped around by parental units. Making the parents into monsters is an easy way to explain away bad behavior. It's too easy. The thing is, sometimes this can be profound or deeply affecting. But a lot of the time, the bad parents are there for the sake of it. You know what's scarier? Someone growing up in a normal household and still becoming a dick.  

4. Too many inside jokes/references

Why it's easy: Because you need to make sure everyone knows you watched The Big Lebowski

Why it's a cop out: Few things stop me as cold in a story as an inside joke or a belabored reference. We get it. You're funny and you watch cool stuff. But I would need two hands and both feet to count the amount of times I've read references to rugs that tied the room together. Writing for your friends, or for your own ego, is a sure way to alienate a reader. 

5. The chosen one

Why it's easy: Your hero isn't just special. He/she has been chosen by some higher force! 

Why it's a cop out: Characters can be special without being touched by the hand of fate. And anyway, if your character is the only person who can solve a given problem, does that make him/her heroic? Or just easily coerced? They have no choice but to be heroic, and that's not really heroism. Very rarely is this trope used well. Most of the time... it's not.  

6. Countdown clocks

Why it's easy: Stakes you can measure by actual numbers!

Why it's a cop out: Hey, remember in The Dark Knight Rises where Bane has an arbitrary countdown clock that's set for several months and the story still manages to converge on the final moments of the ticking clock? Yeah, one of the myriad of reasons TDKR is a shitty movie, and a storytelling device so lazy I'm shocked a guy like Christopher Nolan would use it. Countdown clocks should be outlawed. 

7. Veiling your message in a dream

Why it's easy: This is a great opportunity to show everyone that you're a real writer, because you can use imagery to convey ideas. Or else it's a way to drive home how a character feels about something—afraid, alone, horny, whatever. It's showing and not telling and that's how this whole writing thing is supposed to work, right?

Why it's a cop out: This rarely works—having your narrator describe a dream that just happens to correlate with the story. It's either way too on-the-nose and no one would ever have a dream that specific/ridiculous, or it's so esoteric you have to bend over backwards to connect it to the plot, and when you're bent over backwards, you look silly. 

8. Using sex as wish fulfillment

Why it's easy: Because sex is awesome, especially if the narrator is an avatar for you. 

Why it's a cop out: There are few things that make me as embarrassed for an author as when two characters—always bracingly hot—engage in porn-style sex, and you can just tell the writer is working out some kind of personal kink. Gross.  

9. Magical Negroes and Noble Savages

Why it's easy: Do you need a black or minority character in your story? Add him or her as a character who helps your narrator! Do it in a mystical way! This will prove you are not a racist. 

Why it's a cop out: Native American characters with deep connections to the earth; Asian characters with strict ideas about honor; black characters who start off as intimidating but posses an incredible sage wisdom. They all carry themselves with a quiet nobility. You know what I'm talking about it. It's white guilt in prose form.  

10. Knocking characters unconscious for plot convenience

Why it's easy: Sometimes you have to change locations with a dramatic flourish—and what's more dramatic than knocking your character out and having them come to in a remote, unfamiliar location, all without having to deal with the boring parts, like driving there? 

Why it's a cop out: If a person is hit in the head hard enough to lose consciousness they should be immediately taken to a hospital because they probably have a severe concussion. And yet characters are routinely rendered unconscious to move a plot along, or for dramatic effect. I can't think of one good example of a book or a film where a character is knocked out, and then has to be hospitalized with cranial bleeding. Because that's what would happen. 

Your turn!

Those are mine. Now tell me yours. What storytelling clichés do you wish would disappear forever? 

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Justin Parran's picture
Justin Parran April 8, 2013 - 2:10pm

I'm definitely guilty of using the "bad parenting" cliche! Whoops. I'll give it a rest.

ThisisurfacE's picture
ThisisurfacE April 8, 2013 - 2:26pm

While I've never used most of these cliches. . .In my current work my main character gets knocked unconcious, and while she does have to be carried to the hospital, she also has an admittedly telling dream during her in and out phase of recovery. Hm. I think I may have to do a little editing.

Robin Morton Murray's picture
Robin Morton Murray April 8, 2013 - 2:36pm

Uno mas: Writers who write in English, but extensively quote in another language, expecting the reader to figure it out. (Are you listening, T.C. Boyle?)

Garrett Whitecotton's picture
Garrett Whitecotton April 8, 2013 - 5:21pm

Stephen King has been guilty of all of these at some point but the one that irks me the most is the Somehow they forgot everything that happened cliche. 

All it does is set the writer up for a bunch of easy suprises, because, guess what, they had no knowledge of what had happened.  Oooooo Ahhhhh.  Yeah...stop it.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 8, 2013 - 5:32pm

The 'you'll know when too use it device'! You give someone who is going to have their life threatened 183 times before they need whatever the device is, and they never get curious or desperate once and even consider trying it.

lisakay's picture
lisakay from MI is reading The Rich and the Rest of Us and Funny Times April 8, 2013 - 7:25pm

Funny list, thank you.

Not so much anymore, but when I was young -- a teenager-- I read probably hundreds of the old Harlequin-type romances.  There is such a horrible cliched formula to them, where the governess or the nanny comes to live in the big mansion and the steely-eyed mansion owner sweeps her off of her feet.  Never again!  What mystifies me is walking through a department store book section; even today there are hundreds of those same style books filling the shelves.  My theory is that the teenagers and the stoic matrons reading them find some measure of comfort in the old familiar formula.  They want twists but no surprises.

Along the same lines, I absolutely abhor the cliche of the animal magnetism of the strong, independent woman and the hardened, disappointed, though extremely strong, man who has been dumped, widowed, etc. who begins caring for the strong, independent woman despite his best efforts to the contrary; ditto on the woman for the man.  Why does "love" have to be so contrary and cliched in novels?

writercrossing's picture
writercrossing April 8, 2013 - 8:15pm

There's not a lot of cliches or tropes in fiction that I can't stand. Good writing is good writing and bad writing is bad, and a good writer can do a great deal with a bad cliche.

For instance, the Chosen One. The first character I thought of was Rincewind, the wizzard, in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. He's the Chosen One. He carries the 8th spell, he's so powerful he can't use his magic, and his best skill is that he runs away. Everything that happens to him, he runs away. If a reluctant hero's courage was comparable to a mouse, then his cowardice would be the elephant stampeding away from the mouse. You forget that he's a Chosen One, because he tries everything in his power to not be Chosen - not for dodge-ball, and definitely not for heroics.

Another great example of the Chosen One, and Deus Ex Machina, can be found in Lois McMaster Bujold's "The Curse of Chalion." Only, the Chosen One goes through most of the story not knowing that he's the Chosen One, and he's not a kid, he doesn't have tremendous power, and he can't even recognize his "Fate" until far after the path of his Fate has already begun. But he's still one of the best characters and heroes that I've ever read in fiction. Lois McMaster Bujold writes fan-freaking-tastic characters - male and female alike, from Cazaril to Miles to Cordelia and beyond.

A great writer can even take a mirror cliche and make it stand for so much more than a first person description. They can use it to great effect to describe how unreliable the first person narrator is - an anorexic's mirror shows a far different sight than a narcissist's. Rob Thurman's character Caliban Leandros avoids mirrors with extreme prejudice because he's half monster and he was once possessed through a mirror, so even while describing himself in a mirror, he's giving a great insight into his phobias and his character. When he can look at himself in a mirror and be 100% comfortable, the audience will know he has lost the last of his humanity.

Good writers, like good athletes, can get away with moves that bad writers and athletes wouldn't even dare, because it would just make them look foolish. Cliches, stereotypes, and tropes exist for a reason. They are tools in the writer's toolbox, but unless you know how to use them correctly, you're setting yourself up for bad writing. But they're still useful, they're still tools... they just have to be treated with care, and not as a convenience.

Like the lens flare effect in Photoshop...

Win McPherson's picture
Win McPherson April 9, 2013 - 2:00am

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the power of "super-intuition" where the hero "just knows" something is wrong or that something is about to happen.  A close cousin to this is the hero who is the only smart/competent professional in the room.  No matter what rank or experience level his supervisors have, he is the only one who is in sync with the situation.  (Kevin Bacon in THE FOLLOWING or Jack Bauer in 24 often display these extraordinary instincts.) 

Another overused device is instant attraction between two attractive characters.  If a man and a woman have to work together, they invariably hook up.  They're both conveniently single or involved with someone who deserves to be left. It's never, "Hey, you're a nice guy, but I love my boyfriend/husband and I'm not going to cheat on him or leave him for you." 

I'd also like to eradicate the villain who kills without mercy (including those who work with or for him), but never takes out his foe when the opportunity allows.  (James Bond owes many lives to this contrivance.)  It has never made sense to me that a guy who would kill a henchman for failing a task wouldn't wipe out a major thorn in his side when he's inconscious at his feet.

Stay unpredictable!

Comic Watcher's picture
Comic Watcher April 9, 2013 - 9:58am

Very nice list. Sharing it all over.

Lately I've been pondering the balance between "writing for a broad audience" vs. "writing in the best style you can"  and the more I analyze that the larger the dissonance I find.
I remember reading the first Harry Potter book a couple of years after its release, at the instance of a girlfriend, and how I could see my own brain-cells committing suicide one by one at the horrible writing.

But Dan Brown has proven to us that writing with horrid cliches is like using a language the casual reader has learned to speak and is more comfortable with.

This may have to to do with the deplorable low standards of our educational system, or the omnipresence of the audiovisual media (movies, tv, etc)

Other Cliches I would add:

* Describing objects with masturbatory fixation. Action stories that suddenly spend paragraphs going on and on about the knife or the gun used; fantasy going on about the minutia of the sword, etc...

* The sassy black woman. Only shows that your environment is so diversity-poor that YOU still find it amusing.

* Deux-Ex-Machina. 300 pages of plight, suddenly the aliens come down and fix everything. 200 pages chasing the killer, suddenly you get an epiphany and shoot him at his home.

*Making the setting your home town, and assuming it is picturesque and known by everyone. NO. Not even big cities are known by all. DO NOT ASSUME.

* Actions scenes where the wounds do not slow down the characters. (Goes hand in hand with the loosing of consciousness). If you have a bullet wound, you are going to get a few seconds of shock, but then your area affected is useless. You can't move, or be coherent and likely will be in too much pain. Knife wounds are painful, and if you continue moving, it will continue to tear muscle, not to mention how weak you will be by blood loss.

* Monsters. Plain and simple. Vampires, werewolves, ghouls... if there is a term already created for your monster, you are not being innovative. You are being derivative. NO! Don't tell me you are doing "something different with your take" because that what the other ten thousand writers are saying too.


Michael Crame's picture
Michael Crame April 9, 2013 - 1:35pm

Sexy vampires.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby April 10, 2013 - 2:02pm

Wow. I think every plot from every movie I've seen, show I've watched, book I've read, and song I've heard have been mentioned either in Rob's list or in the comments below.

There is something else that I find annoying: obviously and pointedly avoided every cliche, trope, and stereotype and ending up with a story that just doesn't make any damned sense whatsoever.

I find it funny that we all make fun of these classic plots, and yet movies, books, shows, & songs keep on using them. You know, books as long ago at Don Quijote spent time making fun of plot tropes. In one scene in Don Quijote, a maiden who is gorgeous and VERY desired by all the men in the area, has shut herself in as a hermit and explains that she has done so to avoid the oh-so-classic plot of the fair maiden whose heart is won by a prince/hero/knight etc. She says she belongs to no one, thankyouverymuch. Now her skewering of a classic plot twist, is yet another classic plot twist.

Is there so end in sight.....??!?!?!?

I think we all secretly love it. That's why it sells. (Right, Stephen, J.K, Stephanie, Dan, etc?)

That said...the ending to Stephen King's book "The Dome." I won't give it away in case anyone plans to watch the show for the first time and doesn't want me to ruin it.. but, really...really REALLY? I was so mad when I read how he explained the Dome's existence. Anyone else?

Rob, love this article. Especially number 9! How about the tough (but hot) chick?

Clayton Blue's picture
Clayton Blue from Arizona is reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides April 10, 2013 - 3:12pm

Where is the border between #4 and using pop-culture satire?

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 10, 2013 - 3:37pm

Don't we have enough pop-culture satire?

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like April 10, 2013 - 5:40pm

You know, books as long ago at Don Quijote spent time making fun of plot tropes.

Even today that sort of thing is one aspect which can help elevate a genre story to literary status: awareness of what came before. This can come in the form of winking self-consciousness or intentional play with and/or against the tropes. (Of course, it takes a reader who is also familiar with the history to distinguish it.) If you can tell a good story and display awareness of the story itself and the context into which you produce it, it can earn you a few points from many critics.

People can argue over whether such displays of the writer's intelligence and learning should be a requirement for achieving recognition as "Literature."

Rich Morton's picture
Rich Morton April 11, 2013 - 6:59am

Sadly, if someone were to write a book that excluded all of these stereotypes and cliches, it would sit on the bottom of the shelf at 'Diskountbooks 'r' us' with a BOGO sticker on it. The judicious use of any literary trope or technique is a useful tool. It's the over use thats the problem.

DannO'Keefe's picture
DannO'Keefe April 12, 2013 - 3:28pm

Explosions to end an action story is the biggest cliche of all, and, by the way, I use it all the time and have every intention of continuing to do so. Works great with the old ticking clock, which I also have every intention of continuing to use.I'll also continue to utilize Nos.1,2&5. Why? Because they work. Every time. Just about without fail. Does that make me lazy as a writer? Yeah, kinda, but you know what? So are readers. Some cliches they enjoy so much the cliches become genres (Mystery. Romance.)  I'm with you about No. 10, though. I've seen people knocked unconscious in real life, and it is not pretty, and, therefore, will rarely, if ever, happen in my fiction. Hoping you are the same. 

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb April 13, 2013 - 2:46am

One that springs to mind because I'm man enough to admit I recently did it:

Using a website, online profile or social networking site to introduce a character.

Okay, so I had a character who never bothered with modern technology until he got given a futuristic smartphone for his birthday. So I wrote a scene where he played with what it could do. Why I then chose to introduce an antagonist by having him send my narrator a friend request on a fictional version of Facebook I've no idea, but it was the worst thing I've written in years, and it only took one reviewer to make me realise it was the mirror cliche done with a computer for me to tear it down and feel ashamed of myself. I've never written a redraft so quickly and out of such sheepishness in my entire life.

On the plus side I'm now loving this list thanks to the Knocking Characters Unconscious the same story, the said antagonist does beat the narrator within an inch of his life and leave him unconscious in the road. First thing I did was cart my narrator off to hospital and have him wake up there wishing for a little voluntary euthaniasia. So now I can do the 'Yay I did something right!' dance, at least until I fall into my next cliche trap!

EricaW's picture
EricaW April 14, 2013 - 4:41pm

All of these cliches can be annoying. I'd certainly add twins separated at birth and long, murky prologues with characters that don't appear in the rest of the book, or that simply show the birth of the protagonist (perhaps with some seer or wise woman prophesizing about his--it's nearly always a he--future greatness). Psychic events or lucid dreams in stories or universes where these things were not at least hinted at previously (like, you know, it's a story set in the contemporary real world and not paranormal or something) also make me roll my eyes.

But I also want to add that almost every stereotype can work if it's presented in an interesting or unique way or if the underlying story and characterization is good enough for the reader to suspend disbelief. And one person's pet peeve may be someone else's faviroite trope. Someone mentioned time travel stories as a trope they hate, for instance. I love sci fi stories about time travel.


Amy Wildman's picture
Amy Wildman April 15, 2013 - 12:37pm

Haha, Nancy Drew gets knocked out in every story and always comes out of it fine. One book of hers actually said "her thick hair" prevented a concussion.

I guess a plot cliche that annoys me (and hasn't already been listed) is if the falling action continues a considerable period of time past the climactic ordeal, and we never see any of the characters display signs of PTSD. The protagonist usually goes through life threatening circumstances or witnesses horrific consequences and we're supposed to believe that they are perfectly fine and changed for the better in the experience. No night terrors or paranoia or avoiding places or people that could remind them of their ordeal. It's my understanding that it's when abused people start to feel safe that the trauma makes itself known because they question if they really are safe, or they feel safe enough to break down about it since they really did escape something terrible. But most protagonists walk away like the monsters, deaths, and dangers were a manufactured haunted house and no biggie in retrospect.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 15, 2013 - 1:16pm

It does seem like it should be an important event, but not everyone gets PTSD after such events.

Serene's picture
Serene April 15, 2013 - 3:55pm

As a not-so-magical "negro," I love #9. Nothing gets the eyes rolling faster than the appearance of a mystical Black person draped in scarves. Of course, we are all VERY wise, but we don't like to rub it in.

Stacy_R_Haynes's picture
Stacy_R_Haynes from North Charleston, SC is reading Coffee Break Screenwriter April 15, 2013 - 9:43pm

One cliche I was always warned about was writing a story were at the end the protag wakes up.

I did use #1 once, but to be fair I thought I was doing right by the reader, until it was pointed out to me that it was OVERUSED and not needed. Lesson learned.

I hate the cliche where the antagonist reveals all their plans to the hero, and said hero suddenly has time to dismantle or destroy whatever the antagonist worked on.

I hate watching tv shows where it appears the protagonist appers to be the last one to know things happening to to and around him.  

Characters who start off as remarkably intelligent, strong, and/or bold, suddenly become idiots, weak-willed, and pitiful in order to advance the plot. 

Paul Taegel's picture
Paul Taegel from Los Angeles is reading Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov April 16, 2013 - 6:46am

Wait.  Didn't you ment to title this article "10 Effective Storytelling techniques?" 

In all seriousness now.  Ahem. 

1. The wise child who gives her single parent relationship advice that would make Oprah blush.

2. It's always the bad kids that smoke these days. One of the reasons you know they're bad.

3. The plucky, woman in a man's world protagonist has a gender neutral name like Alex or Charlie.

4. The lone person in the house hears something, suspects and intruder, and calls out "Hello?"  (Word of advice. If you suspect an intruder, either grab a weapon, leave or hide. Do not alert the intruder not only to your position, but also the fact that you've become aware of his presence by calling out "hello.")

thescriptmentor's picture
thescriptmentor April 16, 2013 - 7:03am

Great list; great article.

One cliche that drives me crazy? When your hero cop(s) shoot up the town, killing all of the bad guys (usually with some super weapon taken from the antag somewhere along the line and using it on them), then walking off into the sunset.

Do you KNOW how much paperwork is waiting for them?

Stuart Crafton's picture
Stuart Crafton April 16, 2013 - 7:36pm

        Leave those out? Are you kidding? The challenge is to combine those in one Super-cliched movie!

        Fade in:  The Pro-tag (who was actually raised by wolves on a Navaho Reservation) is, as the credits roll, doing it doggy style at a campsite in the remote Southwest with an understanding ethnographer who is actually looking in a mirror that has been set up beside the sleeping bags and wondering to herself why everyone thinks she is Mad--Mad to make love to this Dog Man who howls in his sleep and wondering why in God's Name they can't see what she sees, that the Turquise Amulet of Santafeyia is around his neck and the prophecies of the Ancient Ones are true--He will lead the world into a Carbon-Neutral Future!!! On the other hand she had that dream--that somehow disturbing dream--that maybe he really was the Anti-Christ! Oh, God, why did she have to rebel against her Mother and become an ethnographer! It was her Mother's fault! And  the Sands of Time are somehow sifting through the Hourglass in the dream and Mankind is somehow doomed! But no time to think about that! For the Dog Man's Post-Coital Howls have somehow dislodged a Boulder from the overhanging Cliff and before she can move--BAMMM!!!!--it has knocked her out!
 an undersea cave off Madagascar....       

         Can't give away any more! 

         Coming Soon to a Theater near you!


Ghost of Hem's picture
Ghost of Hem April 17, 2013 - 10:13am

from tslug: "Bad grammar. Like you displayed in #1. "Pretty easier" Sheesh."

from Rob, Class Director: "You know who publicly shames people for typos?

Self-important assholes.

Correction made. Thanks for the heads up."


Ugh. It's the passive aggressiveness, Rob, that makes you a d*ck.

Call tslug an a**hole. Okay.

Or thank him for pointing out your typo. Okay.

But doing both -- Cliche # 11: The insecure, hyper-defensive writer.


Anthony David Jacques's picture
Anthony David J... from The Internet is reading two or three books at once. April 18, 2013 - 8:17am

I'll admit, 7 & 10 are in my first novel, but I wouldn't sait 10 was for plot convenience. I sort of built the plot around the MC having some weird condition that would do just that; knock him out. 

But yeah, this is a good list. 

And I know it's not necessarily literary, but I'd love to be rid of the two-people-from-different-backgrounds-discover-how-much-they-have-in-common-in-a-dance-competition trope. That cliche is practically a formula for entire series' of movies in Hollywood. And since people write movies, they should stop writing that. 

rachelwordsmith's picture
rachelwordsmith April 19, 2013 - 5:22am

The worest clech'es are in line by line.

Look, looked, gazed, peeked, peered, saw, seen, observed and any eye direction that shows where a player is looking. It is NEVER necessary— what the character sees is self evident. Even worse; smiled, smile, grinned, laughed, and anything that describes the state of a face. If the scene doesn’t tell the reader how the character feels inside action the scene isn’t working.

Stephanie Renee Dos Santos's picture
Stephanie Renee... April 20, 2013 - 4:08am

Hi Rob-

What is your thought on introducting a plot twist on the first page of one's novel?  Would you consider this a "hook" or "broadcasting"?  

Thanks ahead of time for your opinion.


Stephanie Renee dos Santos

Stephanie Renee Dos Santos's picture
Stephanie Renee... April 20, 2013 - 4:16am



Aaron Martin's picture
Aaron Martin from the Pacific Northwest is reading The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson April 20, 2013 - 12:31pm

Oh, here's one I've noticed in some of my guilty favorites: when the first victim, a neutral party, or the actual villain practically bashes the protag's head in with elephant-sized clue(s) about what the villain is up to, yet the hero blatantly ignores all evidence until it's too late. Why? Because it's the only way the plot can move forward of course! Too bad it's way out of character for that brilliant investigator (or anyone with a shred of intuition) to do this.

Honestly, I cringed when I saw this article and had to shelf it for a few days. Didn't want to read it 'til I was good and ready. Why? I wasn't sure if I'd be breathing a sigh of relief or going, "Oh crap!" Well it turns out it was a bit of both. I think these little reset moments are useful for writers. Don't we all fall victim to tropes and cliches (are they not synonymous?) when we're lying awake at night coming up with ideas? And don't we then craft pages and pages of text based on said overused plot device? That's fine if it works, and I'm the first one to forgive a questionable choice if the story is enjoyable. We can't all be Hemingway, or "Insert Latest Charming, Brilliant, Bestselling Literary Genius" here.

thechadmatthews's picture
thechadmatthews from Texas is reading Everything by Ali Smith April 20, 2013 - 5:54pm

My favorite books of all time are guilty of these.

Plagueheart's picture
Plagueheart April 21, 2013 - 5:35pm

While I largely agree with these, I think Stephen King's pulled off #2 pretty well before. That is however largely because he writes horror, and dropping the line, "that's the last time <viewpoint character> would <do innocuous thing>" again can amp the audience's anticipation of something awful considerably. I do notice, however, that he only uses it early on in the book as he's building up tension; later on, awful twists generally blindside the reader, or have foreshadowing that took place several hundred pages ago only to be forgotten.

This may a YMMV issue, though. I know I'm particularly susceptible to the implication of a disaster about to happen, so it may be a cliche I'm okay with because it appeals to me.

djtrotter's picture
djtrotter from Wyoming via NC is reading The Girl On The Train April 22, 2013 - 10:08am

Weather. Also the ever popular power failure during a storm ... at night. Lights go out, phone won't work, cell phone is out of power. I know, I know. Foreshadowing, forboding, rising suspense & all that. A funeral is so much better in the rain, and a stalker/rapist/killer is so much scarier during a thunderstorm when the power goes out.

Occasionally, I'd like to read -- or see -- a terrible event take place on the perfect sunlit day when the world seems full of promise, and the antagonist takes the protagonist completely by surprise. 

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this April 22, 2013 - 10:14am

@Stephanie Renee dos Santos--the question is: How the reader will know it's a plot twist? If it's the first page of the novel, you don't really have a plot in place yet, so how do you twist it? 

djtrotter's picture
djtrotter from Wyoming via NC is reading The Girl On The Train April 22, 2013 - 10:20am

Weather. Also, the ever popular power outage during a thunderstorm in the middle of the night.

I know, I know ... foreshadowing, suspense, and all that. What would a funeral be without the rain? Where would the killer/rapist/stalker be without a power outage, when his victim's lights and phone lose power ... and heroine, of course, left her cell phone in the car?

It might be nice to read a book (or see a movie) that shows the antagonist take the protagonist by complete surprise ... on promising sunlit day, with the sound of children playing in the backyard. (I'm a glutton for punishment)


djtrotter's picture
djtrotter from Wyoming via NC is reading The Girl On The Train April 22, 2013 - 10:35am



Jenny Willis's picture
Jenny Willis from Virginia is reading The Welsh Healer April 24, 2013 - 1:07pm

Switching languages.  Why suddenly have your characters make remarks in a different language? What does this prove? That the characters are smarter than the reader? Especially in a thriller. Just a peeve of mine.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 24, 2013 - 6:36pm

@Jenny - There are certain people who do that irl, so if you are trying to portray one of them it makes a certain amount of sense. But it is way over done.

.'s picture
. April 29, 2013 - 1:39pm

Awesome article!

Alissa Blaney's picture
Alissa Blaney from Ohio is reading Journeys of a German in England in 1782 April 30, 2013 - 2:06pm

1. Base your fantasy race on Native Americans.

2. Love-hate relationships. It's not love, it's an addiction to drama. These couples are a pain to deal with in real life, so stop romanticizing it in fiction.

3. Love at first sight.

Dean Blake's picture
Dean Blake from Australia is reading May 2, 2013 - 10:59pm

A romantic comedy where the protagonist has a quirky, less attractive best friend... but how would a romantic comedy work without a quirky, less attractive best friend?

Nick Perretta's picture
Nick Perretta May 3, 2013 - 5:48am

I am not certain what I find funnier:  the article or the comments.  "Monsters- if they have a name already then you are not being innovative and shouldn't write horror".  Anciet Sumer would like you to stop writing about anything ever if that is your line in the sand.  

"Chosen One" -Gilgamesh.

Shawshank (the story) doesn't have a "magic negro"; the movie does.  Why would a black guy be named "Red"?  He was a white dude with red hair.  But I like that the commentor didn't bother reading the story before commenting on it.

Tryin to write up a list of absolute "rules" in writing is one of the most masterbatory excerises I have ever seen.  You don't like reading something?  Don't read it.  But you will never be able to make a list of "never do this" in writing.  

And why would you even want to?  A mirror is a lens that someone sees through.  It is how the characer sees themself.  A good writer makes this work.  A bad writer makes EVERYTHING bad.  

So I will do you a solid and I will shorten your list for you.

Rule number 1:  Be a good writer.  Anything less and you will be picked apart for "using cliches".  
Rule number 2:  I get to determine what is a good writer.  So unless you are a writer I like, see rule number 1.


1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 May 4, 2013 - 7:32pm

I'm guilty of a few of these.

And maybe it's my frustration/fear about being guilty of a few of them...but isn't everything kind of a cliche at this point? Isn't that where the whole "every story has already been told already" thing comes from?

Isn't the true measure of a great writer/story if you can take all that has been seen and done before and reinvent it so that readers can't get enough?

Jason Beineke's picture
Jason Beineke May 5, 2013 - 10:11am

#2 is what ruined Stephen King's Carrey for me. 

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 5, 2013 - 6:44pm

Everyone is missing is the fact that all of these are used in The Big Lebowski, and the author's inclusion of it in one of the examples is the old "purloined letter" trick. Then again, to notice this would demand familiarity with The Big Lebowski, and, in mentioning it, I've broken rule 4.

Christine Hnath's picture
Christine Hnath May 6, 2013 - 1:56pm

My biggest pet peeve as a reader is when I can sense that the protagonist is a thinly-veiled version of the author.  Any book that starts with a struggling writer in a small town that just happens to be in the same state the author grew up is going to get an immediate eye-roll from me. That said, there are certainly exceptions. 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 6, 2013 - 3:49pm

@Christine - Do you hate it when that is the antagonist?

DownWithIcarus's picture
DownWithIcarus from Canada is reading "Giovanni's Room" May 10, 2013 - 2:41pm

Great list - I just discovered this site and I love it!

I appreciate pointing out the why and wherefore behind the life-draining cliche.

My personal pet peeve cliche: Upon hearing bad or shocking news, the hero/heroine vomits to illustrate how upset they are. It's usually women characters reacting this way, and it reminds me of the Victorian Swoon: an easy way to evade a reaction by falling back on hyperbole.

I mean, how many people actually vomit (ie faint) as an immediate reaction to bad news? I've never come across it in all my days working in human resources, but I read it in books all the time.  Unless the character discovered the decomposing body of a lover, I don't buy it. Throwing up when  finding out a lover is unfaithful, or someone is dead, just reads ridiculous.

G. X. Bradbury's picture
G. X. Bradbury from Corvallis, OR is reading The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States, by Paul Arvich May 10, 2013 - 4:05pm

S'good. S'good.