CHECK YOUR CLICHÉS
Okay, I’ll start with a cliché, that of using a dictionary definition to explain a term: a cliché is: “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.”
That’s definition’s not quite fair, in my opinion, and here’s why:
a) Every cliché was once an original idea. Some clichés go all the way back to Roman times, but somebody had to come up with the idea in the first place.
b) Clichés are popular plot devices, or they wouldn’t be used at all.
So, you might ask, if clichés are popular, why should writers avoid them? Because frequently, they represent lazy plotting, which in turn can irritate the reader/audience.
However, if you can take a cliché and give it an original twist, go for it. There’s a favorite author of my granddaughter’s who takes the stories from familiar fairy tales and extends the story to beyond the “happily ever after.” Come to think of it, my grandson has another favorite author who does much the same thing. And then there’s Shrek. It would seem that this original idea is fast becoming a cliché in children’s literature!
You also might try turning your cliché inside out. At the risk of giving away a spoiler, I’ll tell you what I did in Irregardless of Murder. In the original version, I went immediately from a scene where the mystery is resolved to Amelia’s wedding. Obviously, she and Gil have become engaged in the interim. My editor found that unsatisfying. We needed, she said, to be there when they make this momentous decision.
Okay, I thought, how am I going to do this without creating a scene dripping with clichés? I decided to turn everything inside-out. In the story, Gil had already proposed to Amelia, but she’d told him she wanted to slow down, to think about it. Gil was understandably let down, but he agreed to wait a bit. Now, at the end of the book, Amelia has observed a lot of heartache and anguish caused by separation and she resolves that life is too short and she will marry Gil.
She eagerly hurries to tell him, only to have her beloved responds sarcastically, repeating her own words to her. Amelia is crushed and runs away, childishly hoping that she’ll be killed by a fall down the office stairs, which would “serve him right.” Before she can get very far, Gil follows her and trips on the stairs himself. He’s only slightly injured and catches up with her, apologizes and…well, you know the rest. I think it worked. It fit the personality of the characters.
Here is a list of clichés I find running rampant in books, movies and TV:
1. The alcoholic renegade cop (maybe turned private eye) who solves the mystery before the bumbling police. Half the detective programs on British TV are about this guy!
2. The evil capitalist villain. Okay, I’ll concede that sometimes big business can get out of hand, but in almost every episode of Elementary, the villain is some form of businessman/woman.
3. The evil preacher/evangelist. Come on, now. Not every minister is Elmer Gantry. Most are hard-working, caring people who have a heart for others and for God.
4. The witness who tells the police/detective/amateur sleuth that he has information that he’ll give them tomorrow. Clearly, he’s toast.
5. The gathering of the suspects. My idol, Agatha Christie, is guilty of this. (In fact, she may have invented this cliché, now that I think about it.) I’m a big fan of the humorous mystery series, Death in Paradise, but every single episode ends with such a gathering of the suspects, where the police detectives toys with them before revealing the true culprit. Fun, but predictable.
6. The blurted confession. The villain has been caught in the act and is being handcuffed and suddenly exclaims, “I had to kill him! He was going to tell my secret!” or some such, instead of demanding a lawyer. This was often used in the old Perry Mason series, when the guilty party would confess on the stand, before witnesses and with a court reporter taking accurate notes! I’m happy to report that this device is seen less often these days.
7. Prayer-free stories. How often does a character find him/herself in terrible peril and how often do they pray? I adored Downton Abbey, but despite all kinds of terrible problems, nobody prayed. Prayer has been virtually stamped out in modern writing.
8. The woman before her time. Not every woman in the 19th Century was a suffragette or an emancipated rebel who sneered at house and home. The women who lovingly raised the children and cared for their family were—and still are—the backbone of society.
9. The Deus Ex Machina. (“The god in the machine.”) This has a history that goes so far back, it’s more of a staple plot twist than a cliché. The term originally referred to drama in ancient Rome, where the unsolvable plot problem would be solved by the sudden appearance (from above on ropes, or from below on a rising platform) of a god of some kind, who fixes everything! Want an example? Look no further than the movie Shakespeare in Love, where Queen Elizabeth I suddenly appears in the audience to straighten everything out. Or Robin Hood, where King Richard makes a providential appearance. There are times when this can be used to good effect in your writing, but please, use it sparingly!
There are plenty more, trust me. Perhaps you’d like to add a few of your favorites in the comments below. It’ll put you in the running for an Ebook version of one of my Miss Prentice mysteries! BE SURE TO INCLUDE YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS!!
E.E. Kennedy is the author of the Miss Prentice Cozy Mystery series from Sheaf House. You can read sample chapters at her website: missprenticecozymystery.com