By Jamie Dougall
A brilliant new plot enters your mind. It charms you with sweeping intrigue, fascinating characters, and a premise that cannot be ignored. You immediately start writing, but eventually you realize the story is cliché. All your creative juices die, and you pound your head on your keyboard, wondering why you thought it was a clever idea. The characters are plastic Barbies and G.I. Joes who take three hundred pages to reenact your favorite movie. The ending is predictable. It’s an utter disaster.
Maybe you are being a bit melodramatic. It’s not all that terrible, yet the cliché is present, blurring your scenes into predictable goop. How will you ever fix it?
Clichés are unacceptable because they are repetitive—similar characters playing out similar situations until the plot line becomes insipid. It’s like several people feeding you their own version of spaghetti. Every. Single. Day. You get sick of it, and the next time someone claims their recipe really is different, you’re unimpressed. It doesn’t matter if this sauce has a smidgen of brown sugar. Or the villain only looks like an evil hag. Or the protagonist’s name is not Rapunzel, but Genevieve d’Beauchene. Not only is that a mouthful, it doesn’t conceal the clichéd plot. And we are so done with that flavor.
So how do you spice up a story that tastes too much like bland spaghetti? Read on, and I’ll cover three techniques that may pull your plot out of yesterday’s clichés and to the forefront of originality.
1. Change the Setting
Sometimes it’s possible to rescue a clichéd plot simply by altering the setting. But, you might argue, isn’t that like cooking spaghetti and calling it “To-Ma-To Chow-Mien”?
Not necessarily. Consider this plot line: An evil villain kidnaps the princess and threatens to destroy her family’s kingdom. A brave young man sets out to make a difference. He fights the bad guy, rescues the princess, and the kingdom is saved … for a time.
Sounds like your average noodles, right? We’d deem it cliché and unimaginative. But insert lightsabers, intergalactic travel, and a Death Star, and instead you will hear descriptions like “classic,” “iconic,” and “trendsetter.”
Maybe your story needs a switch of scenery. Send your plot into the future or back in time. Place it in an alternate reality. What would happen if Santa Claus lived in a dystopian world? Or the princess were the drug lord’s daughter? Or your missionary pilot traveled to a remote colony in outer space? I doubt we’d label that as cliché. We would call it captivating.
2. Deepen Your Characters
Your characters may be strong enough to overcome your book’s cliché. Perhaps you don’t know it yet, and that is the source of your problem. You have clutched the plot in your hands and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you, my delicate character, get where I need you to go.” In your valiant attempt to push the story along, you have not allowed your characters to drive the plot. So they remain stagnant. The action feels forced. Readers remain unengaged and begin tearing apart your plot, comparing each scene with books they have read in the past and finally deciding yours is a second-rate cliché.
If your story suffers this way, I suggest you study the art of retelling. Authors who rewrite a classic tale don’t need to focus on the plot line. It has already been established for them. They don’t need to work on the setting. It’s been picked out.
Instead, they concentrate on the characters.
They pour everything into humanizing these characters. They give them deep desires, realistic emotions, and unique perspectives. They revitalize an entire story by redefining a character’s motivations. The story breathes new life. Readers forget it’s a fairytale they’ve heard a million times before.
This same concept can reconcile clichés. If your book has dynamic characters who clearly make decisions based upon who they are as people, your readers won’t need to critique your originality. They will be enticed and desperate to find out what happens next.
3. Challenge Expectations
Perhaps your plot line dangerously resembles a hundred others within the same genre. However, your reader isn’t upset about that. It may be the very aspect that draws him to your novel. He favors this style of book and eagerly anticipates what will transpire within the pages. But, if he continually foresees events accurately, he will be annoyed. He wants a story that will simultaneously meet his many expectations and surprise him.
The truth is, you can never make your book completely unpredictable, and if you do, it won’t be enjoyable. It will be disorienting. Your reader won’t know what to expect, and he won’t care. The trick is to cease striving to fabricate an “unpredictable” plot. Instead, you must learn to use your reader’s expectations against him.
My sister has a cupcake decorating book containing a recipe for the ultimate desert in disguise—cupcakes decorated to look exactly like spaghetti and meatballs. No joke. What sparked such an idea is beyond me, but as a writer, you must emulate these creative bakers: hide the unexpected. Grant your reader the high stakes, stunning disasters, and genre-based plot points he expects. Let him believe he has your story figured out, but never stop there. Challenge his assumptions with a plot twist. He’ll be shocked he ever thought your incredible cupcake was plain old spaghetti.
If All Else Fails, Toss the Spaghetti
Hopefully this article didn’t come too late for you. It came too late for my first novel. Three Strands was once my pride and joy. I wrote thirty chapters before recognizing it as clichéd fanfiction derived from my favorite books by Chuck Black. Salvaging the story was impossible. It contained almost no original plot points or characters and lots of bad grammar.
I had to toss the spaghetti.
If you are like me and your story is clichéd beyond repair, don’t lose heart. I don’t count that first book as worthless. It showed me I could write words. As I crafted each scene, I gained valuable experience in character development, dialogue, and description. Plus, I created a fantastic villain I’ve been able to recycle for a new story with a different setting.
Be Bold, Creative One
Facing clichés is not for the faint hearted. It’s easier to let them slip by unopposed, but you must arm yourself with creativity and deal with these signs of poor storytelling. Hunt, trap, and destroy clichés. Strengthen your plot, deepen your characters, and tip the expected on its head. Your story will benefit, and readers will be grateful you aren’t one of those authors who shoves your own boring brand of spaghetti down their throats.
Jamie Dougall lives with her family in America’s beautiful Northwest. She is currently working on her third novel and has a passion for encouraging others to live—and write—for the King. Jamie believes life holds no greater adventure than to follow the path Christ has prepared for you.
In addition to writing, Jamie loves travel, art, history, and reading. She enjoys directing the Sharp Pens workshops … and trying out new versions of spaghetti.
Be sure to check out Jamie’s website here!