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Plot Cliches And Originality When Writing Novels, by Greg Barron

There are clichés and there are clichés. Some very popular writers fill novels with them. They work, that’s why people use them. Experienced readers, however, can find them off-putting.

This is a big subject so I’m going to look at it over three posts. The first will look at plot clichés, the second at character clichés and the third, prose clichés. Hopefully we can all learn something along the way, and have a laugh at the same time. I suspect that I’ll be sneaking off to my own manuscript when this is done and doing a bit of tweaking, aka cliché removal.

There is nothing new under the sun, apparently, and we are told that even the most original plot ideas have been used before in one way or another. Some pundits have worked out that there are only seven real story lines. Others twelve. I know what they’re getting at, but I personally think that there are as many plots as there are stars in the universe, each as vibrant and full of nascent possibility as the last.

Plot clichés then, are like the known and familiar planets – our Solar System, if you like. The gas giants, Earth, fiery Mars and distant, frigid Pluto. Well charted, studied through millions of telescope lenses over the years. They are great stories, and every other story, will, to some extent, be interpreted through familiarity with them.

These plot clichés have their basis in things such as Biblical stories, Greek myths and fairy tales. They are satisfying because many evolved from oral traditions, and stories that grow in this way become better with each telling – with sharper conflict, more rounded characters, and edge of your seat suspense.

Others come from the great storytellers of the last five hundred years or so – the classics like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Would we have had Harry Potter without Tom Brown’s School Days, Goodbye Mr Chips, or even Enid Blyton’s First Term at Malory Towers?

Other plot clichés have been done so many times you need a very original slant to make them interesting: A man (or woman) loses their memory. Good man spawns evil son. Ne’er do well child of tycoon has to prove himself. The Cinderella idea of a girl with a great heart surrounded by a family of monsters. The Ugly Duckling plot has been explored in almost every situation. The prodigal son. Kane and Abel. Need I go on?

Be aware, however, that certain genres basically run with one particular plot, and then it becomes a convention rather than a cliché. Cosy mysteries all have pretty much the same set-up. Australian Rural Fiction often uses an outsider-coming-back-to-the-country plot. These genres generate their readability from their wealth of characterisation, and the strength of the setting.

There is only one way to avoid writing clichéd story lines that will have editors putting your query letter through the shredder, and that is to read widely in your chosen genre. Then, if you do use a plot cliché as a framework, you’ll dust it off, give it fresh characters with compelling voices, and make it mean something new.

There are more than 100 sextillion stars in the universe. There are at least that many stories. Be original and fresh, and the brightest and most sought after stars will be yours.


Greg Barron’s author website:

Greg Barron’s Bio Page

Rotten Gods     Romeo and Juliet the Graphic Novel: Original TextRobinson Crusoe (Collins Classics)The Ugly Duckling (Classics Illustrated Junior)First Term at Malory Towers (Malory Towers S.)Bella's RunThe Indigo Sky

Writing Novels in Australia

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Brilliant post. I love that last sentence! Looking forward to the next one.

    February 14, 2013
  2. Great piece, Greg!

    February 15, 2013
  3. Lovely post, Greg – I’m looking forward to the next two. 🙂

    February 15, 2013

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