We’re all aware of different narrative clichés which creep into our writing, and we know ways to avoid them - phrases and words such ‘all of a sudden’ or ‘or hell broke loose’, ‘just then’ and ‘suddenly’ etc, but there is also another kind of cliché which crops up from time to time without a writer even realising. These are general fiction clichés.
So what are they? Unlike the usual hackneyed words and phrases, these general clichés can be situations, characters, places, events or even set scenes. The best way to illustrate this is to give you some examples of common fiction clichés:
a) The creepy/haunted house/log cabin in the middle of the woods or near a lake, enveloped by a ghostly mist...now where have we seen that one before?
b) The hard-bitten cop with emotional problems, who doesn’t conform to the rules...how many books and movies have this kind if main character?
c) The woman alone in her house, who for some inexplicable reason forgets that the light switches work and instead insists on using a torch while calling out, ‘Hello? Who’s there?’ Like anyone lurking in the shadows is going answer her, and why would anyone ask such stupid questions to a lurking burglar/murderer/,monster etc, in the first place?
d) The climax of the story always takes place in a factory or foundry, a warehouse or docks...always somewhere where all the workers have mysteriously vanished into a fictional black hole, so there is no one about while the bad guy and the hero slug it out. Sound familiar?
e) The antagonist corners the hero, it looks like he’s going in for the kill...but then spends the next four pages explaining why he’s so evil and horrible and intent on taking over the world, and then goes into great detail about how he’s going to kill the hero. Why do the bad guys always insist on telling the hero everything beforehand? If you are a cold calculating killer, you kill; you don’t hang around chatting happily to your victim.
f) The main character tells his girlfriend to stay put while he goes to investigate the noises outside...so what does she do? She stupidly ignores him (obviously) and goes off on her own and quickly (here’s a surprise) gets into trouble...
Which then leads us to probably the worst cliché in the history of fiction – women ALWAYS need rescuing from danger by the hero, because they’re weak and pretty dumb and can’t do things for themselves, and more importantly, they’re there to make the hero look...well, heroic.
If your story has any of these, especially the last one, it really needs some brutal editing and maybe a dose of reality.
These familiar examples are all fiction clichés and happen with regularity. Why must a creepy or haunted house be in the middle of nowhere? Why must your crime novel have a cardboard-character cop so predictable that the reader will see through him? Why do TV series, movies and books always have characters searching through a house with flashlights when most of the time they can just throw a light switch?
And why are women portrayed so dismally in fiction and with such stereotypical influence?
Writers settle into these clichés too easily, and without realising it, so to avoid them is to be different in your approach. It is a matter of carefully reading through your story and being able to spot obvious these types of general fiction clichés, and if you do spot them, be judicious with your editing.
Think carefully how the story begins, how it will open out and how it might end. Think about how your characters fit and work together into this framework. If there are female characters, have you made stereotypes from them? Why not switch the gender roles and have the female rescuing the male, for a change.
Don’t be afraid to be different with your characters so they are not so predictable or turn into cardboard cut outs. Be different with your settings - set your ghost story somewhere other than the clichéd creepy forest/lake, and instead choose the middle of a bustling town or city, or perhaps it takes places on a ship or in a factory. Challenge your reader with unpredictable events rather than predictable, hackneyed ones.
Try to be different with as many aspects of your writing as you can, this is what makes ideas fresh and inventive, but be different, especially when it comes to fiction clichés.
Next week: How your writing evolves.