Despite a writer’s best efforts to be original, familiar plot and scene devices often sneak in. But you’re not a bad writer just because your manuscript contains clichés. Writers with less experience or narrower reading lists are more prone to gravitate to common tropes—not because they lack talent, but because the situations, characters, and settings are new to them. If you’re struggling with this issue, don’t be discouraged. Your storytelling senses are not broken.
However, you should still avoid clichés, primarily because they’re predictable, and secondarily because they’re shortcuts. That’s why clichés exist—they’re simple ideas that push a story forward in a specific way. But, with time, popularity turned into overuse.
If you can pinpoint the purpose a cliché serves, you’ll be able to strip away the gimmicks and build a solid framework that allows you to achieve the same effect more creatively. To illustrate how, I’m going to unpack two tropes at length, then I’ll quickly apply the technique to a handful of others.
The Love Triangle
This trope is most prevalent in romance novels and YA fiction, but it rears its head as a subplot in other genres. A female character is unable to choose between two lovers who appeal to different sides of her personality (yes, I’m looking at you, Twilight). Her indecision stirs up an intense internal battle, which is much more interesting to read (and write) than a character who has little to stress about. In addition, romance automatically charges a story with emotion. Put those two together, and you have a recipe for engagement. But it’s too easy.
Why? Because relationships are messy and life-changing without extra complications. A character who questions a relationship is pitting her path alone against her path with another, weighing the possible outcomes. You don’t need to introduce a third person to boost the upheaval. Doing so leaves room for weak character development. In contrast, conflicting desires within a character will provide the tension inherent to a love triangle—except with none of the tricks and all of the trade.
Think of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet’s hasty prejudice against Mr. Darcy acts as the third point of a triangle between the two of them, igniting the misunderstandings that drive the story. Mr. Darcy’s pride, mirroring this, temporarily forms a triangle on his side of the relationship as well.
Another way to ditch the trope while reaping the benefits is to make one of the relationships in the triangle platonic. This pressures your character to evaluate her priorities, allowing you to paint her with broader strokes and helping readers see her as a real person.
Whatever your personal solution, beware the dragons of perpetual angst and lengthy monologues. Characters are spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical beings, and they’ll express inner turmoil in every one of those dimensions. You have the entire human experience as inspiration, so do your best to include aspects of the full range.
The Chosen One
This is possibly the most recurrent fantasy trope. In terms of plot, only the chosen one (usually a person of initial insignificance) can solve the core problem—and his rise has been foretold for generations. Whether or not he’s a well-rounded and intriguing character, he bears the weight of the story on his shoulders.
As a storytelling element, the chosen one empowers the ordinary, transforming an average individual into an agent of change and master of the world’s fate. Psychologically, the trope holds a powerful appeal for readers, most of whom view themselves as unremarkable. Many of these stories also draw either direct or indirect parallels to Jesus as the ultimate chosen one.
The chosen one cliché ensures that readers realize the protagonist is vital to the plot, regardless of how flat he may be. Because who dares to doubt the eminence of the chosen one? When authors rely on this expectation, they tend to become lazy, and readers don’t appreciate being manipulated.
At best, the chosen one has a compelling reason to be important that’s exclusive to his world, and he’s a complex character who carries the story alongside a dynamic cast. At worst, the chosen one is painfully obvious wish-fulfillment for the author/reader.
You can empower the ordinary in your stories without falling back on a chosen one. Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings functions similarly to a chosen one, but he willingly accepts the role. It isn’t thrust upon him via an obscure prophecy. He simply responds to a need without foreseeing the implications.
You can replace the chosen one cliché if you lead your (actually) ordinary protagonist to make an extraordinarily noble choice, which sets off a chain of events that changes the world forever. To further erase hallmarks of this cliché, be careful not to reveal that “only he can solve” the central plot question. The ending may turn out that way (doesn’t have to!), but nobody knows ahead of time. A beautiful tapestry is woven from many threads, not just one, so spread some of the responsibility onto other characters.
If you’re worried that readers won’t view the protagonist as instrumental, revolve the story around thematic issues he faces. Whether readers consciously notice or not, they’ll sense the pattern you’ve woven and recognize that the protagonist truly is the story’s axis.
A Few More for Good Measure
Disney favors this trope, but countless stories use the trauma of dead (or absent) parents to force the protagonist to fend for herself. It works because loss gives characters a strong psychological foundation for their flaws, making them relatable instead of despicable.
If you can, find a substitute for parental death/absence, such as a broken friendship, moving to a new house, or a physical/mental handicap—anything that dramatically reshapes the character’s life. Death is the default option because it’s the most straightforward and understandable source of heartache. But even a perceived loss, like a middle child feeling overlooked, can influence your character’s flaws without a cookie-cutter backstory.
Messages in Dreams
This trope functions as a crutch to artificially move the plot or character development along, because dreams don’t require the same level of realism as normal narration. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is filled with dream sequences—some that are executed well and some that aren’t.
Your best bet is to eschew this cliché, unless you’re willing to treat the dream world as a legitimate dimension of your story and don’t suspend believability within it.
We’ve all read stories where we’re told that the protagonist is a brainiac, but the author never proves it. The goal is to attract readers with the unusual—but instead of providing that, the author takes readers’ trust for granted (as we saw with the chosen one). Just because the author says something is true doesn’t make it so.
If you can’t substantiate your protagonist’s intelligence, don’t brag about it! Your characters are only as smart as you are. Instead of baiting readers with wild claims, offer them glimpses of the quirks that average human beings have. Sincerity trumps smoke and mirrors every time.
This trope is another fantasy staple that hearkens back to the hero’s journey. It’s intended to remind readers that the protagonist (and thus the reader) can’t overcome certain problems without external guidance. If the mentor doesn’t die in the first act, he’ll likely be the one who trains the protagonist.
You can underscore the protagonist’s immaturity or inexperience without inserting a mentor character. Give the protagonist access to an ancient library, diversify the wisdom so that it comes from multiple characters, or flip the script and make knowledge immaterial to success, requiring the protagonist to be righteous rather than skilled.
Something Old Made New
Creativity doesn’t necessarily mean brainstorming a brand-new idea. For most of us, it means reinventing techniques that storytellers have been recycling for hundreds of years. It means crafting artistic and clever phrasing. It means deleting the countdown clock, character introductions that happen in front of a mirror, and “little did he know” scene endings. It means throwing characters into settings that break genre stereotypes. All of this demands far more work than resorting to established clichés, but a fresh perspective is always worthwhile.
You need to be acquainted with your audience and the trends within your genre so you can be intentionally different. Otherwise you might emerge from your hermitage with a basket of clichés. So keep your ear to the ground and a keen eye on your manuscript. You can uncover clichés before they become too deeply embedded, identify the purpose of each one, and then concoct alternatives that accomplish the same goals.
And who knows? When you put in the extra legwork to be imaginative, you might capture the next simple, effective tidbit of storytelling that catches on until it too becomes a cliché.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.