Storyville: Ten Ways to Avoid Cliches and Stereotypes
One of the ways that you can stand out as an author is to write original fiction, to have original ideas. There are a lot of different genres that have traditions rooted in certain content and form, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick with them. Here are ten suggestions for how you can avoid stereotypical stories, characters, plots, formats and other aspects of great fiction. Take a look at your writing and ask yourself if you are just regurgitating what has been done for years, writing the same stories that have been told over and over again, or if you are trying to evolve, to update the current short story, to make it contemporary and compelling—and original.
1. DO THE OPPOSITE
I can remember when I wrote my first novella, originally titled The Outskirts, part of a collection that Nik Korpon, Caleb Ross, Axel Taiari and I [sold to Dzanc Books]. I had a scene where a bouncer stood in an alley, arms crossed, a long line of kids waiting to get into this hip underground club. Nik suggested that I make the doorman anything other than a large, muscled black man or a big white bald guy with a thick neck. And I thought, “You know what? He’s right. Why am I being so lazy?” So the next time you create a situation, think for a moment about how you’re setting it up, who you are “casting” as the actors, and what you make them look like. Why not have your serial killer go out in the morning, instead of the dead of night? What would it look like if your serial killer was a young woman instead of a hardened criminal, some discharged Marine looking for revenge? Black is white, day is night, up is down. Play around with it and see what happens. Oh, and that doorman? I ended up making him a very short guy with a Napoleon complex, very gnome-like, with a goatee and an attitude, a long stick with a taser at the end of it, and I think it turned out pretty well.
2. SELECT UNIQUE WORDS AND PHRASES
It can be as simple as choosing the color red. I took a class with Monica Drake (Clown Girl) at The Cult back in the day. We were assigned a photograph as our prompt. I decided that I wanted to figure out who was looking at that barn every day—a mother, a father, a son, or a daughter. Would they all use the same language, the same words? No. Where one might call it red, another might say crimson—one might say it looked like a persimmon, where another saw it as a bloody jail. In the end it turned out they were all the same person, a schizophrenic young woman off her medication, and that story became “Released.” As long as it doesn’t stand out, try using different adjectives instead of the first ones that pop into your head. By juxtaposing new combinations you can create a unique voice, where the red of a barn is velvet, a memory of a scarf that ended up strangling a brother, the physical depiction leaking over into strong emotions.
You’d be surprised how many phrases you use (and I do it too) that are really clichés. It was as dry as a…it was colder than a…he sobbed like a…and on, and on. When you are writing, try to catch it while it’s happening, or when you edit—tweak those phrases and make them your own. Don’t rely on the familiar, but instead, take us in new directions, and paint new visuals, set new scenes where the poetry of your phrasing is something we’ve never seen before. You’ll own it that way.
3. WRITE STRONG WOMEN
I know that in the past I’ve written my share of weak women, objectified them, and made them flat. But I’d like to think that with some of my more complicated female characters such as Annabelle in “Victimized” and Cinder in “Transmogrify” I at least tried to create a history, a set of emotions and experiences that informed their present day situations, dilemmas—and allowed them to breathe, and be unique. Look at what Gillian Flynn did with Gone Girl. I’ll try not to spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet, but she creates a female protagonist in Amy Dunne that is very complicated. Amy starts out as one kind of person, while she is in New York, and Gillian changes her over time, makes her testimony unreliable, painting her with many shades of grey (see how easy clichés slip into your writing?) until we don’t know if she is the victim or the aggressor, a woman in trouble, or a woman stirring it up. That’s how you get depth, that’s how you create a fully realized woman. Sure, the femme fatale is a standard character in crime and noir fiction, but put a twist on it, like Flynn did. Or look at Chelsea Cain and her Gretchen Lowell thrillers, which started with Heartsick, one of the few female serial killers in contemporary fiction. Resist the urge to make all women whores and prostitutes, to reduce them to emotional messes, mothers and daughters, secondary characters on the periphery. In Paula Bomer’s Nine Months she shows us a woman that is pregnant, but totally unhinged, desperate to find herself, to connect with someone, chasing her fantasies, abandoning her family, in a really interesting dark take on motherhood—very original.
4. USE INCITING INCIDENTS AND FOCUS ON THE GROTESQUE
In a dramatic structure the inciting incident is that moment, a conflict, that begins your story and causes your protagonist to act. It is a moment in time, a tipping point, beyond which things will never be the same—a crossroads of sorts. These are those pivotal scenes in your stories and novels where you see what your characters are made of. One way to be original and unique is to get rid of everything that leads up to this event, and start right there, in media res, Latin for “into the middle of things.” So don’t give us the whole coming of age story from A to Z, start us at F or M where things really get weird and intense.
I wrote about the grotesque in a previous column here at LitReactor, but what you may not remember, or may have missed, was the way that Flannery O’Connor talked about the grotesque not only as a character, a person, traits, and behaviors, but as moments, as events. In her article, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” she says, “…we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” THIS is what I’m talking about. Do not write about the cliché, the common, the everyday—write about the spaceship your protagonist saw in the desert, that one time two girls came home with him, the night he took what he thought was an aspirin and it turned out to be LSD. My professor at Murray State University, Dale Ray Phillips, used to encourage us to, “put a damn Sasquatch in that story,” and he wasn’t kidding. It took me until now to realize that while he was serious, and he literally meant put a damn hairy ape in our fiction, I think he was also alluding to the idea of putting something strange and unique in the story—making it grotesque.
5. CREATE UNIQUE CHARACTERS AND SITUATIONS
Yes, I said earlier to do the opposite when considering what to write about—what does your cop look like, what does hell resemble, how do you portray your women? But why not start with a unique combination from the beginning? Don’t just go against the grain, start out with something totally new. I know, that’s going to be difficult, but just keep pushing yourself, making one decision after another until you arrive at a unique place. Let’s say you want to write about a serial killer. First, is that idea even new? Not really. How many serial killers have we read about over the years? Why not start with somebody who is killing people against his own will, possessed? What is possessing him—a demon? No, too easy. What about an alien? No. What about one of his own previous lives, or souls? We’re getting a bit Looper already, but maybe that’s a good start. And instead of the typical white male, why not a shy Indian girl. Better. Now, what else—maybe she is mute? And that means the entire story is in her head. Look at a novel like Room by Emma Donoghue, which is told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy named Jack. Now, maybe I’m a lazy reader, but I wasn’t a huge fan of Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy—but that’s an original POV and use of language. Can you see where I’m going with this? Think outside the box. How can you be cliché when everything you’re doing is foreign and new to you, the author? I’m sure it’ll be familiar to somebody in the world, but it’s a good place to start.
6. CHANGE YOUR FORMAT
We’ve talked about the standard dramatic structure here before, about Freytag’s triangle (or pyramid) where you start with a hook, the inciting incident, fight against a conflict, finally reaching a climax, and eventually, a resolution. I’m not saying you need to abandon that structure, but why not play with form? I’ve done this a few times, with my choose your own path story, “Splintered,” which ran at PANK, as well as a list story, “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave,” which was almost a poem, with twenty answers that all started off, “Because…”. I also wrote a story called “Interview,” where sprinkled throughout the narrative there are items from a grocery receipt, such as “1 BOX OF HEFTY CINCHSAK TRASH BAGS, LARGE 30 GALLON, 32 CT: $7.99.” By itself it doesn’t mean much, but when you add in lye, a handsaw, work gloves, and Astroglide lubricant, well, something sinister is going on. Write an epistolary story, one told only with letters (or e-mails, perhaps). I think Roy Kesey once wrote a story that was nothing but the answers from a job interview; you never hear or read the questions, just the answers (NOTE: it's also called, "Interview"). Again, it’s much easier to do something original when the format is different than what you are used to writing, what your audience is used to reading. Play around, have fun, see what you can come up with—you’d be surprised.
7. SET IT IN THE FUTURE
Another way to avoid writing clichés and stereotypes is to create a society that is totally new and different. Why not set your story so far in the future (or an alternate history) where nothing is the same? Whether you want to write A Brave New World or 1984, if you make up all of the rules, you can avoid the conventions, cultures and norms of contemporary society. In your world, what is the commodity that has the highest value—gold or corn; sex or purity; dreams or water? Your world can be science fiction, or it can be literary. It can be horrific or it can be peaceful, but it’s up to you to fantasize and make something your own. One of the reasons I loved reading Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, and Robert A. Heinlein growing up (and today as well) is that I never knew what was going to happen, where I was, or how the rules would change. And that’s a lot of fun, both as a reader as well as an author.
8. CHALLENGE CONVENTIONS
One of the reasons I love writing neo-noir is I don’t have to subscribe to the rules of classic noir—detective, femme fatale, and a crime to be solved. While I like solving mysteries, and making my characters fight to resolve conflicts, I never feel the need to be formulaic in my depiction of their lives and problems. When you think of what a fantasy story is, what comes to mind? Do you think of hobbits and dragons (The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein) or do you think of gods from a long time ago living amongst us now (American Gods by Neil Gaiman)? What scares you, what is horror fiction all about? Is it vampires, werewolves, and demons or is it the terror of waking up to the same day over and over again, or a violence that lands on your doorstep, something you summoned through your own dark actions? It’s whatever you want it to be. Think of the genres you write, and then find a way to twist them, update them, and make them your own. Build on the mythology, fairy tales and fables you know, and make them contemporary and new.
9. LEAVE IT OPEN-ENDED
What you might think when I present that dramatic structure, and Freytag’s ideas, is that you have to wrap everything up in a bow, when you have that dramatic climax and resolution. That’s not entirely true. Your protagonist can change, she can fight against her conflict, get through it, and win or lose, and come to a resolution that is not complete or happy or even defined—it can be open-ended. The resolution might be that even though she seeks men that are dangerous and not good for her, and struggled to survive the drama and dangers of whatever story you’ve just written (cannibals, a violent ex-husband, or maybe a rabid dog) she still knows that she has to work hard to change, to stay on track, and the ending of your story may just be that understanding she has finally come to—a resolution to change. She stands by the burning wreck of her 2001 Toyota Camry and sticks out her thumb, hitchhiking west, adamant to be a different person. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or happy—your endings can leave us wondering what comes next.
10. BE REALISTIC
Some of the ways that authors create clichés and stereotypes are by being unrealistic about how they portray their characters, their emotions, and the situations they get themselves into. Observe life in the real world, document it, and put it into your writing. Life is not a soap opera, so be careful that everything you write about isn’t elevated to an unrealistic height. Some days, life can be boring—but the way you show your characters going about their lives, how they get up in the morning and interact with their families, what job they have and how they go about it, what they eat, their sex lives, their hobbies—all of that can reveal character, build emotion and tension, and pull your readers in. I’ve written several stories that I’d call “suburban noir.” They are set in the suburbs, where I live, and unfold in these little cookie-cutter houses, and it’s all very vanilla—except for the part where the mother and son buy an eight-foot tall plastic lobster, pour a truckload of sand in their living room, and sit down at a Ouija board to see what they can uncover. The setting is realistic, the life they live is pretty common, but by sprinkling in a bit of the surreal, or magical, I can create something different, while still honoring the emotions and truths that we all experience—love, hatred, apathy, loss, hope, and desire. That’s why the greatest “genre” authors can be collected in “literary” tomes like The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, a bible for many academics. They include Ray Bradbury next to Flannery O’Connor, Ursula K. LeGuin with Shirley Jackson, Tim O’Brien alongside Ralph Ellison. They all speak the truth, that’s the realism these authors bring to their writing, always based on something true, that we can relate to, and can honor.
I hope these tips help you to take your writing to a new level, one where your stories are unique, unexpected, and honest. Best of luck.
Two of the authors I refer to at the end of this column have stories I'm linking to this week. Please go read Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," and Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."
TO SEND A QUESTION TO RICHARD, drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.
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