More often than not, I find myself having to reject manuscripts due to clichéd writing. Since it’s one of the most common things I see in the slush pile, I thought I’d talk about it so other writers can avoid it.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about occasional clichéd sentences, like “I was so scared that my blood turned to ice in my veins” or “I needed to avoid him like the plague” or other commonly used metaphors and similes. Such uses are often effective when used sparingly and at the right moments. They’re often the quickest way to get your meaning across.
And I’m not talking about tropes found within specific genres (because each individual use of a trope should be unique even if it’s the same type of situation), like the damsel in distress or the chosen one or the guy gets the girl.
I’m talking more about the scene level. Specific scenes that aren’t accomplishing anything new in the story, yet are included anyway. Let’s talk about the most common ones that I see.
- The main character describing herself by looking in a mirror.
I swear some people put a mirror into the scene just for the sake of describing their MC. But there are thousands of ways to describe a character without doing this. You can do it through dialogue. You can have the MC outright state it. You can have your character have a bad hair day. Whatever. The important thing is that the descriptions enter the text naturally. Don’t make it sound like you’re trying too hard.
- The school scene
In contemporary YA manuscripts, unexperienced authors often feel the need to lay out the main character’s entire schedule. Then we have to watch him go through the whole schedule. Such scenes add nothing to the plot. They only give us minor details and go into great detail about the setup of desks in a math classroom or the posters found in the chemistry room. I don’t care how beautiful the author’s writing is. If he’s describing something that I’ve seen a hundred times, I’ll find it boring.
- Excessive use of a character’s name
In first person POV, when introducing the main character’s name, a side character will tack her name at the end of a line of dialogue. But then another character does it. And another. And another. When people talk to each other in real life, they rarely use each other’s names. Only if we’re trying to get their attention.
- Bringing a character from our world to a new world
Now this can be argued as being a trope, but this bugs me in certain genres. In middle grade, it’s okay. Do it all you want. For YA and above, I see it as a no, no. It’s cheating. It’s a way to introduce your world building to a character unfamiliar with the new world. I am so sick of reading about the disbelief of the main character and waiting for her to catch up with everyone already a part of the new world. There’s no reason not to just have your main character be a part of the new world already. There are other ways to show the world building to the reader. You don’t need to spell it out to one of the characters. And if you’re doing it for the sake of having a main character who speaks and thinks in modern English, you’re just being lazy, and I will have none of it. (Note that time travel is not the same as world travelling. I think time travel is perfectly fine.)
- The completely irrelevant and meaningless prologue
I cringe just thinking about this one. I have to read so many prologues that don’t make any sense. Prologues that are uninteresting and much too wordy. Writers seem to have a hard time grasping why this isn’t okay. Let me put it this way. Books with prologues have two beginnings: the prologue and chapter one. It’s hard enough capturing a reader’s interest once. If you have a prologue, you have to engage the reader twice. That’s an extra opportunity you’re giving him to put down your book. And you’re asking him to sit through meaningless scenes until he gets to where the story really starts. So why bother?
- Uninteresting magic
If magic plays a large part of the story, it cannot be bland and unexplained. If the magic feels like that found in another story then you shouldn’t do it. Be unique. There are types of magic. Elemental magic, strength-draining magic, mystical amulets. THESE HAVE BEEN DONE BEFORE. Come up with something interesting. Something that makes sense. Don’t have magic for the sake of having magic. (See my post Three Awesome Shows and Magic That Fails for more information.)
- Dream scenes
Just don’t do it. Dreams are so overdone. Don’t do it to reveal important plot points. Don’t do it to tell things to the reader without the main character knowing. Don’t do it to start off the character’s bad day. Just don’t do it. Show plot progression other ways. Ways that require you to be clever. You’re a writer. You can be clever, so do it.
- Fainting to end a scene
It’s okay if your character faints for a legitimate reason at an inopportune moment, but don’t use fainting as a way to avoid a transition or to avoid coming up with what complicated thing could come next in that scene.
- A diary holds the secret
No, a diary does not need to hold the secret. The main character needs to do something clever to learn the secret. That thing which will make them discover the next course of action. By her own ingenuity your MC can solve the problem. She doesn’t need to find it in a book. Diaries are lame. Diaries are overdone. Diaries are clichéd. Don’t be clichéd.
You can be smart. I promise you can. You can have unique ideas. It may be difficult, and it may take time, but you can do it. Be brave enough to try.