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Clichés in Plots and Description

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Clichés.  Books are full of them, both in the plots and writers’ descriptions. Yes, I know, there are only seven major plot themes, and all stories evolve from one or a combination of them. So they say. I found a great explanation with examples in this post by Len Wilson

Overcoming the monster
Rags to riches
The quest
Voyage and return

I never thought about the seven plots when I wrote my books. I didn’t even know about them until I kept hearing how there are only seven basic plots. I found the idea rather defeatist and didn’t want to look further for fear I might quit writing altogether since I was sure everything I’d written had been written before. When I finally read them, I found the definitions to be broad and generic, with enough latitude to erase my anxiety.

It’s a writer’s job to find nuances in plots that make them as original as possible. Some genres adhere to formula. Cozy mysteries usually have an amateur sleuth stumbling on a body. Detective novels have a world-weary, sometime alcoholic PI or cop. In romantic suspense novels, the  heroine and hero usually dislike each other in the beginning. Many times their animosity is misconceived or misinterpreted. Other times it’s dredged up from a past experience that went sour. But without a doubt, by the end of the book, they’ll either be in love or in bed, usually behind closed doors.

is not a romantic suspense in the classic definition because of the ending. The male character is a sex-crime investigator; the female is a very expensive, retired call girl. He blackmails her into working for the police to find a murderer or she's off to prison on a tax evasion charge. They dislike each other for what they are until over the course of the story they get to know who they are. I know this is not the only novel where the cop falls for a lady of the night, but I hope it's different enough to stand alone.

One reviewer complained the characters in my romantic mystery, Murder Déjà Vu, fall in love too fast. Well they like each other―tough. He spent fifteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit; she endured the same time in an abusive marriage to protect her sons. Because of plot demands, they don’t have time to dislike each other.

My alter ego’s erotic romance, The Escort, a book about a wealthy retired colonel blinded in Iraq who hires an escort to help him navigate a tricky meeting with two soldiers under his command, sounds like a book written by another author long after my book was published. That was the first time I saw a book described that sounded close enough to one of mine that it threw me. Surely, there are more. I doubt writers think about those seven plot lines when constructing their stories. We develop a story idea and run with it, adding our own ingredients into the recipe.

Overused descriptions are a big bugaboo of mine. The ones that drive me batty are not exactly clichés, but I’ve read them often enough for them to qualify. I’ve used some myself, which makes my complaint hypocritical.

…she said through gritted teeth.
…his lips formed in a straight line.
She squared her shoulders.
One corner of his mouth tugged upward.
She straightened her spine.
He rolled his eyes.
His smile didn’t reach his eyes.
I released a breath I didn’t know I was holding.
Cleansing breath, ragged breath, calming breath, sighing every which way, etc.

You get the picture. These are all good descriptions. We know what they mean, and maybe once they were original, but they’re overused now. I'm reading a book now that I swear has them all. As writers, we look for new ways to say the same thing. Sometimes there aren’t that many choices, no matter how hard we try to find one. We stalk thesaurus sites online, searching for a fresh approach, a word no one has ever used before―unlikely―and we spend too long on a phrase or paragraph, striving for originality. Whenever I come across one of those overdone descriptions, I grit my teeth, square my shoulders, and bang my head against the wall―sorry. Every time I read a word or description that is clearly strained because the writer is stretching to be original, it stands out to me like a sore thumb―sorry again―and takes me right out of the story.

I write genre fiction. When I read over what I’ve written, if it doesn’t sound real, if it doesn’t sound like someone speaking naturally, I rewrite it. (Or as Elmore Leonard says in his ten rules: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Thanks, Elmore.) I don’t want my readers to stop reading because I’m working too hard to make it sound important or lyrical or unforgettable. Exquisite prose is not natural to me as a writer. I wish it were, but it’s not my strength. Getting into my characters’ heads is. I want my readers invested in them. I want my readers to care enough about my heroes and heroines to turn the page to learn what happens to them. I want readers to be afraid, to cry, to sympathize, and to think about my creations after they close the book. I strive to create the most original plots I can with unusual characters filling the pages. I hope my readers don’t roll their eyes and think they’ve read my books before by other writers, because, you know, there are only seven basic plots.

Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. This is something my critique group is really good at catching. It's harder when we're trying to edit on our own. Excellent post, Polly.

    1. I really did want to throw the book I just finished across the room. The cliches ruined a perfectly good plot idea. My critique partner is great at catching mine, but they usually aren't the ones I mentioned. There are soooo many more.

  2. Great post, Polly! I fight the cliché thing all the time -- in my own books (I must talk that way) and in the manuscripts I edit. Making unique word and phrase choices sound normal and flow seamlessly with a story like they're the most natural thing in the world is a challenge, to say the least.

    1. You're right, Linda. Sometimes I find it's better not to look for those unique words because that's probably not the way I would say something. We are our characters. In many ways, they are an extension of us, so if I wouldn't say something, my character probably wouldn't. Now the secondary characters are a different thing entirely. That's where I have some fun.

  3. Very helpful post, Polly. I remember when I was editing for a small publisher and was given a manuscript with quite a few cliches and overused phrases, especially in dialogue. When I suggested to the writer that finding something fresh would be better, she countered that that's the way people talk.

    1. Well, now, I have met people who keep repeating themselves, but that's because they can't remember what they just said. :-)
      Your writer didn't know what she didn't know yet. Some of us are slow learners.

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  5. Good post. I've written all the cliches and probably will again, because that is the way people talk. There's a fine line between being original and sounding reasonably natural. It's tough to find the balance. I try to watch, but occasionally things do slip by.

    1. It's a very fine line. The best way for me is to get inside the heads of my characters and speak the way they would. It leads to my split personality disorder.

  6. Nice post. Food for thought. (How's that for a cliché?) I try to avoid clichés, but as Ellis said in the above comment, sometimes a cliché is the most natural way to get an idea across in a few words. Even worse is writing that sounds too thesaurus-in-hand.

    1. I agree. Using the thesaurus to find different words can stand out like a sore thumb (cliche) if the word isn't natural. We've all done it. Hopefully, we realize how it sounds before it gets to publication stage.

  7. There is a great Emotion Thesaurus tool (among others I find invaluable) on Writers Helping Writers

    1. I'd seen this before but forgot about it. This time I bookmarked it. Thanks for the reminder, Diana.


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