Sunday, February 10, 2013

Six Common Clichés in Fiction

One of the biggest problems I’ve had when plotting my novels is that I often resort to what I call “default mode,” which means I put on paper the first idea that comes to mind. I think all of us have done this at some point or another, but to me, this problem persisted until I became aware that I was doing it (which happened to be very recently). Thanks to one of my critique partners and best friends, I’ve come to the realization that this is one of my weaknesses and something I need to work hard to avoid.

Clichés in fiction—first cousins to contrivances—are mostly found in romantic comedies and soap operas, but you may find them in more serious pieces of fiction as well. Basically, they consist of either fake sources of conflict and drama, excessive coincidences, predictable reactions and/or stereotypical characters. I realize I may be ruling out a large percentage of fiction, but it is my believe that if we learn to identify these clichés, we’ll be better equipped to avoid them and write better fiction.

Here’s my list of most commonly used clichés and contrivances. (FYI: I’ve used most of them, but rest assured, they’ve been extirpated in the final versions of my novels.)

1. Airport Tension

Most romantic comedies use this device. It’s the climax of the movie and it creates a contrived source of drama and tension. One of the characters has either been offered a job elsewhere or has decided to start a new life away from the problematic love interest. After the lovers have parted ways in a (usually) ugly manner, the staying partner realizes the wrong of his/her ways and catches a cab, motorcycle or X transportation (under heavy big-city traffic) and manages to make it to the airport, harbor, train or bus station, to find the beloved partner before he/she makes an exit in an emotionally-charged, public declaration of love which ends in a kiss and applause from nearby observers. Sometimes there would be “the fake departure,” which makes it appear as though the protagonist has arrived too late, but not to worry, the coveted lover would turn out to have changed his/her mind or may have missed the flight. I’ve seen cases where the passionate protagonist even makes it inside the plane to rescue his/her loved one.

There are so many examples of this I would probably end up naming half of the comedies ever made, but I’ll give you a few: Life As We Know It, Secret Admirer, How to Lose A Guy in Ten Days and the list goes on and on and on and on…

The Progression of Airport Tension

Part 1: Oblivious Sad Protagonist on her way to a new life sans Love Interest (LI).
(Notice LI following in motorcycle.) 
Part 2: Sad Protagonists ponders on the meaning of it all. 
Part 3: Love Interest convinces Now-Happy Protagonist their love
is worth fighting for (despite traffic).

2. The Fake Betrayal

We also see this one used again and again. Protagonist or love interest has finally decided to declare his/her love to the other party, but somehow this person has gotten into a strange mishap/tangle with the antagonist in which it looks as though the couple was having sex, about to do it, or in a situation where the antagonist forcefully kisses the protagonist. The love interest, of course, does not confront the situation and sadly retreats to sulk on the betrayal (or will not listen to explanations). A recent example of this is The Ugly Truth where the competitor for the protagonist’s affection removes his shirt after spilling champagne on it and the love interest finds them in an awkward situation. The audience can spot these events a mile away, so if you can avoid them, please do.

3. The Clueless Father

This is a soap opera favorite. Taking advantage that the protagonist and her love interest have gotten into a fight/separation period, the evil antagonist gets the guy drunk, strips him naked and lies patiently beside him until he wakes up the next day. Then, she makes him believe they had sex (which he can’t remember but is not sure it’s a lie either) and a few weeks later, voila!, the antagonist announces that a child is in the oven (who has been fathered by the evil male antagonist). Usually the pregnancy news come at a moment where protagonist and love interest have mended their differences and are headed toward the altar.

Yeah, don’t use this one.

4. Excessive Coincidences

Another soap opera favorite. Either the protagonist and love interest continuously ran into each other in the strangest of circumstances, or even worse and most commonly used, they belong to the same family. She could be the orphan child of his father or mother, and he turns out to be the adopted party or some other kind of entanglement of that nature. The point is that during half of the telenovela, the characters must believe they are siblings or closely related. (But of course the audience knows this is not so because they couldn’t possibly tolerate the mere idea of incest.)

Enough said.

5. The Nicholas Sparkism

If you’re familiar with Sparks’ stories, you know that one of his characters is meant to die—with or without good reason. The first time, he surprised you. You didn’t see it coming and you may have actually cried, but by the third Sparks movie you watched, you were just trying to guess who was going to die on this one: the guy or the girl.

Sure, when a character dies, you may touch your audience emotionally and/or pull them closer to your story. But watch how and why you do this, because if the reader smells the manipulation, it may not work.

Or maybe it was Nicholas Sparks' idea!

6. Generic Descriptions

This cliché particularly refers to the written word. These are the expressions, descriptions, reactions and words we see interchangeably from one novel to the next. These, I admit, are the hardest clichés for me to overcome. But what exactly does she mean, you ask. Well, think about how you describe characters. Usually you start with their eyes. The eyes also become the first body part you use to describe a physical reaction to a situation: eyes can glimmer, shine, brighten, narrow, etc.

Next we have the jaw. Check out how many times in your novels the jaw tenses. Do you talk about its shape when you describe a male character? (especially one that your protagonist must find attractive?) How many times do your characters roll their eyes, shake their heads, nod, sigh, frown, stare, grin, tremble? Mine do it all the time!

The problem with the excessive use of these expressions is that they are the antithesis of “voice” and “style.” In other words, if all the writers use the same descriptions and reactions, how do we make our writing stand out? How do we differentiate each other’s style?

In conclusion, what most of the mentioned contrivances have in common is that they lead to misunderstandings, which is the heart of comedy (and can be hilarious when done right) but there is a fine line here. Too many misunderstandings (particularly when used in drama) can make audiences roll their eyes in annoyance, curse or slam the remote control across the room—none of them reactions you, as the author, would like to cause.

Can you think of books and films which have succeeded at getting past clichés and contrivances? Which ones have overused these devices?


  1. This is exactly why I can't stand Nicholas Sparks' writing! Every movie I watch of his I immediately try to pick who will be dead by the end of the story. Only one have I watched that it's the relationship that is dead and there are no corpses by story's end.

    I don't struggle too much with any of these, but if I had to choose one, I'd say it would be number 6. I'm always trying to be conscious of what I choose for description, but it can be awfully easy to fall into the 'generic' rut!

    The problem with genre writing is that after a while all the characters in romances, thrillers, fantasies, etc. sound the same. I suppose that's why I don't care for them too much.

    1. "Only one have I watched that it's the relationship that is dead and there are no corpses by story's end."

      Do you remember which one it was?

      I confess that I've used all of the above cliches except for #3. I've always hated when they do that in soap operas (and they do it ALL THE TIME.)

    2. "Dear John" I believe. It was such an unfulfilling love story and the ending just stopped and that was it. But then, I don't expect much more out of Nicholas Sparks.

  2. A good post!


    "One of the biggest problems I’ve had when plotting my novels is that I often resort to what I call “default mode,” which means I put on paper the first idea that comes to mind."

    Watch this:

    And I noticed:

    "-but it is my believe that-" :D

    1. "And I noticed:

      '-but it is my believe that-' :D"

      Ha ha ha! I wish you would have edited this article before I posted it. :)

      Thanks for the link. I watched the first 10 minutes (very interesting) I will watch the rest as soon as I get a chance and get back to you.

  3. I haven't read Sparks but I know Malena and I can resonate with that one when it comes to George R.R. Martin. The body count in his books ... sheesh. Sometimes it's necessary to the narrative but often (especially with the direwolves, for heaven's sake) it's just to make you cry.

    I loved this post, and squirmed when I recognized the cliches in my own writing, as we all must. Especially the generic descriptions of bodies-doing-things ... why do we feel so compelled to do that? Each writer has her own tics, too, I've noticed. Some writers are all about eyes, some about hands, some about hair. I think you guys caught one of my characters always chewing her lip. I read one book recently where there were almost NO physical descriptions (I didn't even notice till the end) and it was such a breath of fresh air. If you can leave the body out of writing as much as possible, you're forced to come up with more novel ways of getting the emotion of the scene across. But dang, is that ever hard to do.

    One example of "Fake Betrayal" that I think actually works (I suppose every trope is grounded in something effective) is one of my favorite YA novels, "The Sky Is Everywhere," by Jandy Nelson. The protagonist is caught by one boy in a compromising position with another boy; but it's not exactly a fake betrayal. Maybe that's why it works.

    I have worried so much over excessive coincidence in my writing (not with incest in particular, thank goodness), but my spouse has been reassuring me lately not to get too caught up in that. Almost every novel, good and bad alike, relies on some degree of amazing coincidence. It's hard to avoid. You can worry yourself into a tizzy, looking for plausible ways to get characters into the same room ... sometimes it's better just to make it a coincidence rather than spend 40 pages giving them good reasons to be there. :)

    What a fun post, with excellent advice!

    1. "The protagonist is caught by one boy in a compromising position with another boy; but it's not exactly a fake betrayal. Maybe that's why it works."

      Does this mean she was really cheating?

      I've also used coincidences in my novels. I think it's ok to use some (and from what I've read on the subject it's more "acceptable" at the beginning of the novel than at the end). In other words, it's not ok to solve the protagonist's problem with a coincidence. I guess readers have become less tolerant/more skeptical about this. Perhaps because they've been overused (and therefore have become cliche).

      About the body parts. That is one of my biggest problems. A writer friend (who studied theater) once told me that one of the resources actors use to express emotion is through prompts. Ever since she told me that I try to picture something in the characters' hands and imagine what they might be doing with it to express their feelings rather than having their stomach twitch or something like that. :)

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  5. 'what most of the mentioned contrivances have in common is that they lead to misunderstandings, which is the heart of comedy (and can be hilarious when done right)'

    I like this. A lot. I love a good comedy of errors. But just as you say, it must be done right and that's the sort of skill, I think, which is developed over time. Raw talent is good. Honing the skill over years to 'do it right,' in my opinion, is indispensable.

    1. " must be done right and that's the sort of skill, I think, which is developed over time."

      I agree with you, and I would add one more thing: I think one of my problems with my first novel (earlier drafts) was that I tried to mix comedy of errors with drama. The problem is I saw this done over and over again in melodrama and I didn't realize that the expectation of a novel reader is different from a telenovela viewer. (TV fans have a lot more patience than readers!)


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