A few weeks ago, I picked a random book off the library shelf and started reading. The book, Flashfall, grabbed my interest immediately. The characters were relatable and the story world was fantastic. Even better, the plot seemed fresh: miners struggling to excavate radioactive caverns where mutated creatures were trying to eat them. I hadn’t read anything like it.
Until I realized that I had.
After the fun of the first sixty pages, the mining ceased. It turned out that a familiar dystopian regime ruled the “unique” story world. The “interesting” heroine became just another strong female character who didn’t respect authority. (She also had a boyfriend, and another guy she liked.) Needless to say, she ended up inciting a revolution and probably would have toppled the dystopian government. I’ll never know for sure, because I was too disappointed to read the next book in the series. The clichéd plot killed it.
You don’t want your book to meet that fate. To avert it, check your novel for these four types of plot clichés:
1. A Clichéd Storyline
Is your story cliché in a broad sense? Have you read it (or something like it) before? Is it about a strong-willed teen rising against the tyrannical government and sparking rebellion? The boy who is too young to go to war, but does anyway? Or maybe the awkward girl at school who’s in love with the starring quarterback?
According to theory, only seven different stories exist. Ouch. I personally don’t hold to this theory for (at the very least) moral reasons. But it’s true that the abundance of stories makes it nearly impossible to find a “new” story. The goal is to reinvent a story so that it isn’t recognizable by your audience.
It is as simple (and awfully complicated) as that.
People don’t want to read the same story twice. They may think they want another Hunger Games or Lord of the Rings, but they’re really after the emotional thrills those books gave them, which can only be generated by an original plot, story world, and cast.
A word of caution: before we start identifying clichés in our own stories, we need to commit. Finding clichés is difficult, because deep down inside, we don’t want to see them. We’d rather shut our eyes and walk away. But we can’t. We must judge our stories with brutal honesty. Otherwise we won’t get very far. Sure, it hurts sometimes, but pain is an essential part of growth. Every time we remove a cliché, we’ll be improving our stories.
Now that we are steeled against ourselves, we can move on.
Ask yourself what story your novel reminds you of. Not identical, just similar (e.g. Peter Pan and Robin Hood always seem to draw connections, even though they are totally different). Come up with at least three options. Then get a piece of paper and jot down the major plot points of all the stories. Write yours out and compare.
How do they line up? If you have any similar plot points, work to change them. Play around with your outline, characters, and backstory.
Your story won’t suffer from being more original.
2. A Clichéd Plot Twist
Is your hero’s father the villain? (Or is there any relationship reveal at all? Because those are getting old. Thanks for nothing, Lucas.) Does your hero’s mentor die just before the climax? Does the big government guy who appears to be on the hero’s side turn against him?
If you answered yes to any of those, you have a problem. Don’t worry though; most stories contain borrowed plot twists. You don’t need to eliminate all of them, but recognize which ones aren’t as surprising so you can hinge your story on the good ones.
To get rid of clichéd plot twists, be bold. The best plot twists are startling. (Of course, they should be foreshadowed, but subtly.) Everyone knew Emperor Palpatine was evil long before he launched Order 66. Grant Ward from Agents of Shield though? (Sorry, spoilers.) I didn’t even like him that much and I still had no idea he was a Hydra agent. I had no idea he would go on a killing spree and try to wipe out the entire team. I had no idea he would drop Fitz and Simmons out of a plane.
He was the main character’s best friend. He wasn’t supposed to betray the team. That was someone else’s job.
But I loved the unexpectedness of it. It hit me out of nowhere, and left me hanging on for dear life. I’d seen heroes betrayed by friends before. But never by close friends. And never to that extent. It was fresh. It was fantastic.
The last few episodes of the first season of Agents of Shield are some of my favorites. I was on the edge of my seat for the whole ride. Grant’s treachery sent a message to me from the script writers: “Watch out, this is no holds barred.”
You want to send that message to readers with your plot twists. Instead of the briefly mentioned “ally” betraying your hero, assign that role to his best friend, or close brother, or mentor. And don’t cushion the blow. Give the traitor his own motivation, but still make him wrong and committed to his dastardly ways. Don’t Loki him.
In addition, feel free to use the age-old “turn a cliché on its head” trick. Your mentor dies? That’s boring. What if he attempts to assassinate the hero instead? Your heroine’s boyfriend dumps her? Typical. What if he breaks up with his other girlfriend, and your heroine only hears about it through the grapevine?
Make the outcome unpredictable. No holds barred.
3. Clichéd Character Motivation
Your characters are important to your story, but it can be tricky to make them pop off the page—especially when they don’t behave of their own desires, but because “that’s just what villains do.” Has your hero ever been left to die when he should have been finished off? Has your villain ever allowed someone to live to “suffer the guilt of failure”? Have your heroine’s parents ever had the “it’s time to let her grow up” discussion?
If so, you’re teetering on the thin, thin border of clichéd motivation.
Clichéd character motivation can be tough to spot, and even tougher to exterminate. But there’s an “easy” fix.
If your characters are developed well and stick to their own personality, your readers will accept them, even if some of their motivation is cliché. But beware: if your characters are cliché, then readers won’t be able to relate to them. Your characters need to be real, honest, heartfelt before readers will buy into them.
Okay, not an easy fix. Creating believable characters is difficult.
But it also will enhance your story.
4. A Clichéd Scene
A clichéd scene isn’t so much what happens as how it happens. The biggest (ugliest) example is the death scene. So many have been written. And they are all the same.
The dying character (probably a relation to the hero) grasps the hero’s hand and tries to speak while coughing up blood and gasping a last breath. Then the hero screams (probably repeating the word no over and over, at least in his mind) and attempts to resuscitate the dead person before giving up and bawling.
I’m not saying this is a bad way to depict a death scene. It’s tried and tested. It won’t fail.
But that’s the issue. It minimizes the emotional effect on readers because they’ve seen it numerous times.
Avoiding clichéd scenes isn’t hard. Take some of your favorite books in your genre and study scenes where events similar to those in your novel occur. Look for death scenes, betrayal scenes, villain-reveal scenes, etc. Then, make sure yours contrast. Maybe the victim is already dead when the hero arrives. Maybe the hero has to abandon the body because of incoming enemy reinforcements. Maybe one of the other characters in the scene mutters something derogatory about the deceased, causing a fight.
Write a new, fresh, emotional scene. You’ll thank me later. (Just kidding, you’ll thank yourself later.)
Others Know Best
Despite your best attempt, you will never be capable of viewing your novel without bias. It will always be your novel, no matter how much distance you put between it and you. Getting another opinion could be crucial in identifying clichés in your novel. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. (The KP forum is a great place to give this a shot.)
You can find and destroy the clichés in your novel. It requires honesty and creativity, but the results are worth it. After all, you’re writing your story, not someone else’s.