Columns > Published on April 5th, 2013

Top 10 Storytelling Cliches Writers Need To Stop Using

Header image by Viridiana O Rivera

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? 

About the author

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor. His latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, will be released on Feb. 22 by Ballantine. He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. Other titles include the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. Find more at www.robwhart.com

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