Updated: Nov 12, 2020
As any English Prof will tell you, avoid clichés like the, well, plague. It’s an instant F to start any story with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Similarly, overused plot devices are literary anathema.
Here are a few of the most overused plots in human history:
It was all a dream (and the protagonist wakes up in a not-so-satisfying climax).
A gigantic version of some scary beast is coming (think Jaws or King Kong).
Your protagonist has amnesia and the plot involves their quest to find and ultimately escape from their past (think The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum or the Y.A. novels Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler and I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier).
Twins. Think Viola and Sebastian in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or (less well known but my favorite twin comedy, The Comedy of Errors). Or The Parent Trap. You can also play the twin trick for dramatic effect, as in making the real murderer be the protagonist’s long lost twin.
Teens who develop superpowers. Overworked much? The cynical professor will point out that ‘it’s just puberty’ and please get over it, but there sure have been a lot of popular stories based on this cliché.
Asleep. Whether it’s a girlfriend in a coma or a beautiful princess on the run who’s been put into a magical sleep after biting an apple offered her by the evil witch queen, this is certainly the stuff of cliched plots. Maybe better not to write a story about a sleeping girl for your MFA in writing?
But here’s the thing about plot clichés. If you make a list of the top twenty novels and movies of the year (any year), quite a few of them will employ one of these don’t-go-to devices. So what’s going on?
For one thing, professors of English Literature and Film Studies are not your audience. Not unless you have to write a paper for one of them. Readers and viewers generally like a good plot, which doesn’t have to be 100% original. It just has to be done in a fresh, exciting way.
Also, sorry to say, there aren’t any 100% original plots. We’re always stepping where other story-tellers have trod before. That doesn’t mean we cannot make our own paths, but it does mean we’re going to criss-cross a rich landscape of archetypal plots and, yes, clichés. The thing is, it’s fine, in fact, wonderful, to redo an older plot device in your own way. Some of the best new writing springboards off generations of old writing. No writer is an island.
Here’s a fun and contrary writing exercise:
Pick a plot cliché from above (or another of your choosing). Now, outline an original plot based on the cliché that is fun and interesting and has your own fresh twist.
To start a story with a clichéd opening line is to set yourself a challenge. You have to dig yourself out of the hole you just put yourself in, as Madeline L’Engle so artfully does in A Wrinkle In Time. English Profs instantly recognize the ‘dark and stormy night’ opening line from Victorian writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, which is known for its flowery and clichéd prose. But to base your entire plot on a cliché is to give yourself a far greater writing challenge. And why not? All those best-sellers can’t possibly be wrong.
May the plot be with you,