Posts Tagged ‘cliches’

We’ve all seen it. The nick-of-time rescue. The bomb diffused with one second left. The suspect bolting when the cops show up, resulting in a parkour-style chase around the city. These, and many others, are standard tropes in film and television. Sadly, they and their ilk show up a lot in fiction writing as well. I’ve even poked fun at some of them before (“Attack of the Killer Clichés”, “Return of the Killer Clichés”).

It’s time for them to die. Really. NOW.

They used to have their place on (rare) occasion. But speaking as someone who watches a lot of streaming video while playing with string, I’m sick of seeing them EVERYWHERE. And, with the crush of indie publishing, fan fic, and writer’s “critique” sites, I’m seeing it more and more in fiction as well.

That’s just lazy writing, people.

Not that I haven’t done my fair share of tropes and stereotypes. Part of my reason for doing this piece is to remind myself of all the bad writing habits I have, and possibly figure out how to fix/avoid them. As opposed to just avoiding my writing all together…


Minion tea[4]

…and dark chocolate…


So, why do we have such tropes in the first place? One word: drama. We’re trying to up the drama quotient. For a story to be successful we need to have tension and consequences and challenges for our characters to wade through. If there’s no risk for the character(s), there’s no reward for the reader(s).

But there’s a bazillion ways to cause trouble for our characters. It’s time to get inventive. We writers are really evil geniuses channeling our Dr. No selves onto the page, so let loose your inner demons and give the world you’ve created something to REALLY worry about. And I don’t mean turning that bomb they’ll need to diffuse at the last second into a dirty bomb, or a bio-bomb. Been there, done that, played the video game.

No, if you need to blow shit up, do it metaphorically instead of literally. If your characters are well developed (see “It’s Made of People”), it should be easy to come up with stuff to throw in their way. What’s the worse possible thing (or person) that could happen to them? Why does it need to happen? How will it advance the story or the character’s development? Everything you do on the page needs to keep things moving forward, in some fashion, for the overall arc of your writing.

That doesn’t mean leaving out things that can add depth to the world you’re creating, though, just because it doesn’t directly affect what’s happening. Black-clad mercenaries are a dime-a-dozen. But mercenaries who collect butterflies and read Harry Potter are something else again. Now you have some depth you can dive into. Will any of that be pertinent to your story later? Maybe. Maybe not. Right now, though, it gives me-the-reader something interesting about your character I can latch on to. There’s more there than black leather and a gun. That could mean there’s more to your story than the usual revenge/redemption/killer rampage most mercenaries inhabit.


Dominatrix Minion

That’s not the kind of black leather I meant. Now I need the eye bleach…


But what if I REALLY want to blow something up?

Then blow it the fuck up. Make it spectacular. Make it a surprise. Make it heart-rending. Make it anything but the usual. I don’t want to see your hero rushing in at the last second, huffing about how the bomb squad won’t get there in time and is it the red wire or the blue wire as he bites through both with his teeth to save the day. I want to see him crushed by defeat because he DIDN’T get there in time. Or horrified because he didn’t know the bomb even existed. Or secretly elated because now he has the perfect excuse to go on a murderous rampage.

Okay, yeah, that’s another trope, too. Sorry.

The point is, do something DIFFERENT. If you’re finding yourself falling into the same old comfortable ruts for plot points and character development, get out. Pretend it’s Opposite Day and you’re playing a game of Calvinball. Be wicked. Be absurd. Be outrageous. Kill the hero, because he’s not really the hero, his female sidekick is – psych! Don’t kill anybody, because the bomb was really a dud! The bomb DOES go off, but the entire city is coated in glitter! Anything but the usual.

And how do you know if it’s the usual? Just ask yourself: have I seen/read/heard this before? If you have, how important is it to keep it “normal?” What happens if you do THIS instead? If the ticking time bomb is integral to your story, what are you doing around that to make your characters and story different?



Read a book, they said. It’ll be fun, they said…


There are occasions when we depend on tropes and stereotypes as a kind of shorthand for the reader. It can make for less explanation/exposition, and allow us to get on with the real reason this story needs to be told. But we should never depend on them. The world is comforted by formula – the tried and true (see Hollywood) – but we writers need to constantly rail against the expected, the normal, the usual, and really dig into exploring our worlds to the fullest. Whatever your genre, whether fiction or non-fiction, we want the reader to be entertained, enthralled, surprised – not bored or disappointed. Give them predictable and they’ll give you the cold shoulder. Writing is lonely enough – we don’t need to chase off any readers in the process.

Turn the formulae on their heads. Find the peculiar, the wretched, the dangerous, and let us have it. Always challenge yourself. You’ll be a better writer, and I’ll have more cool things to read.

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I’ve been catching up on some of the shows I’ve missed over the last few weeks. We don’t have cable, so I miss the really cool stuff that’s on the pay channels (Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, etc. – that’s where DVD sets come in), but we get all the major broadcast networks on the antenna. Yeah, you read that right – ANTENNA – big wiry thing on top of the house. Gives you FREE TV. Works great in metropolitan areas like Southern California, but not so much when you’re in the podunks of Dumbfuckistan. Sorry.

Anyway, what I miss on the regular broadcast nights I can get on the Internet. Usually Hulu, where I have literally hundreds of shows queued up from all my different interests, or the actual network website. Most of them have their recent episodes available for streaming. With video-on-demand becoming more common, and sites like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon doing their own original programming, regular broadcast television will likely go the way of the dodo at some point in the future. Especially when one can sit at their computer and cram all their favorite shows in on one rainy weekend while sitting in their pajamas with popcorn and hot chocolate. Great for those depressive fits when talking to a live human just won’t do.

So, there I was watching the last couple episodes of this season’s The Mentalist on CBS.com (CBS doesn’t have an agreement with Hulu). The Mentalist was one of those shows that took me a while to get into. I couldn’t quite connect with the characters initially, and the premise was just another knock off of the quirky-genius-solves-crimes that started with Sherlock Holmes and progressed through Hercule Poirot, Columbo, and into Castle. But it grew on me. I became invested in the characters. It took far too long for the whole Red John thing to play out, which cost them viewers, but I held on. Then I was disappointed when they broke the original team up and transitioned the leads into the FBI. I have my doubts that the real FBI would tolerate someone like Patrick Jane for longer than it takes to say his name, genius case closer or not. But I still stuck with it. Then this season’s finale came and I suddenly realized the cliché monster had attacked me yet again.

You might remember a bit I did last year on clichés (Attack of the Killer Clichés), mainly those found in science fiction. Well, this time it’s about those banal tropes we see everywhere, over and over again, in TV, movies and books. We as writers can do better than this. Don’t make me get the flying monkeys…

1)                     Public Declaration of Love: usually done at the last possible second when the object of said declaration has already boarded a train, bus, plane, boat, whatever to move onto the next point in their life and leaving the declarant behind. In the case of The Mentalist, it’s a plane. Good performances aside (and the not-so-little-fact that those two particular characters just shouldn’t be together romantically), it’s a tired scene that’s been overused far too many times. There’s plenty of other ways to get this information out and not have it be a schmaltzy retread. For some brilliant relationship writing (hell, brilliant writing in general) watch Farscape. There’s a reason that show still has such a strong following over a decade after it’s cancellation.

2)                     Last Possible Second Rescue: apparently it’s impossible to diffuse a bomb before the timer reaches :01. I have yet to see one actually blow up because they just couldn’t get it done in time, but I’ve also never seen one with more time on the clock than one second. I’ve seen this one so many times, I actually get mad at the writers for being lazy. Or someone’s falling and they get the benefit of a one-handed grab by somebody, leaving them dangling over the abyss but not dead. Or being pushed from in front of a runaway (insert conveyance here). Or the bad guy gets shot just as he is about to shoot one of the good guys. Or, … well, you get the idea. Drama and tension and suspense can be built without falling into the old tried-and-true. Challenge yourself and avoid the traps.

3)                     Good Guy is Bad Guy: you know the one – loyal friend, boss, partner, spouse who’s been with you through thick and thin, who NO ONE would ever suspect, is actually the brilliant mastermind behind all the hurt our hero experiences. Talk about betrayal. And boring. This goes for those occasions when an institution, such as the police, the CIA, or the local church elders, is actually the corrupt bastards behind the problems, too. Does this crap actually exist in the real world? Sure it does. But it’s no fun when I know who the disguised bad guy is in the first few minutes of a new show or movie. Kind of makes the rest of the show moot.

4)                     Bad Guy is REALLY Bad: he twirls his moustache, kicks puppies, tortures people just for fun, etc. He is more of a caricature than a character (I’m looking at you, Slade Wilson). But bad guys are far more convoluted than that. Good and bad are merely two sides of the same coin. It’s a perspective thing. In the latest Superman telling, Man of Steel, General Zod is supposedly the bad guy. He is hell-bent on destroying Earth and that’s all we see. The truth is, though, he is doing exactly as he was bred and trained to do – protect and save Krypton. He is the hero in his mind, and he can’t understand why Kal-El doesn’t agree with him. Bad guys have reasons for doing what they’re doing. They have lives, families, hobbies, just like the rest of us. The most interesting baddies are the ones we can identify with, or even feel sorry for. Make them real and you’ll find your stories suddenly opening up with possibilities.

5)                     Dead but not Dead: this one is probably the one that annoys me the most. One of the lead characters has been killed! Oh no! Whatever shall we do? Cue crying co-characters, sad music, funeral scene, and pulled heartstrings. But wait! He’s not really dead! It was a 1) ruse to fool the bad guy, 2) mistaken identity, or 3) alternative time line. Just don’t. If you’re going to kill a character, make it for good. See Walking Dead if you have any doubts how to do it.

So there’s my latest batch of cliché pet peeves. I’m sure there’s plenty more out there, but let’s try to kill these off first. We’ll all be better writers, and I’ll be less annoyed. At least, for awhile…


© 2014   Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.

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