When I was fiction editor for a literary magazine, the same plot devices kept showing up on my desk again and again. Well-written tales were marred by tired and well-worn tropes — and usually I had no option but to reject them.
Even worse, when I cast a critical eye upon my own writing, I found I’d been using some of them too. Once I started looking, I realized they were everywhere . . . and they were usually a good indication that what I was about to read was unoriginal, sloppy, and often simply bad.
Twenty years later, I still see the same old cliches. My heart sinks a little every time, but maybe even more damning is that most of the agents and commissioning editors I know actively hate them.
To reduce the risk of an automatic form rejection, keep your eyes open for one of the following tropes in your own work. Can you tell your story without them? I do hope you can, because it’s hard enough to get your fiction noticed nowadays . . . and you don’t want to get noticed for the wrong reasons.
So, let’s get to it.
This may be the most overused plot device of all. I really have lost track of how many novels I’ve seen with this trope at their heart. But, frankly, apart from being way too common, it’s a lazy way to generate intrigue and mystery. It’s too convenient to have your protagonist forget something vital . . . and remember it at just the right time. I’m looking at you, Jason Bourne.
My biggest bugbear with this trope isn’t that it’s lazy (though it is); it’s because it’s unrealistic. Retrograde amnesia (which is what we’re mostly talking about here) rarely results from the kind of head injury or trauma depicted in fiction — it’s almost always caused by viral infection, serious alcohol abuse, or neurosurgery. And the memories never come back in a dramatic sequence, at just the right time to be useful. More often than not, they never fully come back. And research shows that sufferers of amnesia also have trouble planning for the future. Real retrograde amnesia seriously impairs your ability to function and quality of life.
So, if you’re writing a thriller that hinges on the protagonist’s lack — and gradual recovery — of memory, don’t.
My advice is . . . damn, I’ve forgotten.
2. It was all a dream
This one is almost as common as amnesia, but it’s even more reviled. It makes me want to grab the writer by the ears and shake him until he wakes up to what he’s done. There are two main reasons to avoid it at all costs.
Firstly, think about the last dream you had. Did it make narrative sense? Did it have a beginning, middle, and end? Did it foreshadow any events in your life or foretell the future? Of course it didn’t. My last dream involved sharing a joint with Russel Brand, forgetting where I’d parked my car, and being unable to use Google Maps. Not exactly Pulitzer prize-winning material. But thisis what dreams are like. They’re not satisfying dramatic interludes. They’re dumb and they don’t make sense. Dreams are the mental equivalent of taking the bins out.
Secondly — just like amnesia — it’s a lazy way to generate drama, and it’s cheating your reader. And once you’ve lost their trust, you’ve lost them for good. Reader engagement is a precarious business, and if you repay their emotional investment with something that turns out to be pointless and ‘not real’, they’ll simply walk away.
As an alternative-reality Nike ad might say: just don’t do it.
3. A group of friends visits an abandoned asylum/carnival/spooky place of your choice
This may be slightly genre-specific, but I see a couple of stories with this premise every week. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a group of friends going anywhere — but why are they always teens (or early twenties at the oldest) and why do they always visit a place that obviously harbors a serial killer or a nameless creature or an ancient, lurking evil?
And, of course, the group will quickly become separated — at least two of them will creep off to make out away from the others, and another will go exploring on her own with a flashlight that cuts out intermittently — leaving the ancient, lurking evil able to pick them off one by one until the Final Girl dispatches it with surprisingly little trouble at the end . . . which makes us wonder why she didn’t do so a lot sooner and save us all that time and trouble.
Use this trope with great caution. If you must use it, jiggle the default settings. Make the group a bunch of retired work colleagues. And rather than venturing into an abandoned asylum, have them visit a disused golf course. Imagine a haunted golf buggy . . . and whatever might come slithering out of the hole on the dog-leg 18th.
4. Deus ex machina
I’m pretty sure audiences were becoming bored with this more than two thousand years ago, when Aristophanes used it to parody Euripides’ over-enthusiastic use of ‘the gods from the machine’.
These days, it’s used to denote a sudden and unexpected resolution of an irresolvable conflict by the introduction of an unforeseen plot device. One of my favorite examples (carefully written and deliberately used) is in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the eponymous hero is rescued from certain death at the hands of the Romans by a passing alien spaceship.
My objection to this device — along with the objections of most agents and publishers — is not on grounds of realism. There are plenty of real-life cases of hopeless situations being turned around by unlikely random events. No, my objection is simply that it’s lazy. Just like amnesia, if I remember correctly.
Many writers will have no option but to resort to a deus ex machina contrivance when they find they’ve written themselves into a corner and put their protagonist into a situation from which escape is impossible (note that a deus ex machina only solves problems, never makes them worse).
The solution? Don’t write yourself into a corner. Plan your story properly and make sure you know where you want to end up, so you can figure out how you might get there. It doesn’t matter if you produce a fully-fledged plan of twenty-thousand words or if you work it all out in your first (and subsequent) drafts. But at some point, you’ve got to establish how to get from the beginning to the end, via the middle. So you might as well do it properly.
5. The love triangle
This cliched device is rapidly becoming one of the most common cornballs I get to enjoy in my work. And I’m far from a romance specialist, so it shows how the trope is spilling over into other genres too.
The most frequent permutation is a variation of the old ‘girl meets boy’ scenario — ‘girl meets boy meets other boy who’s hotter than first boy but first boy is best friend’. Of course, you can substitute any variation of gender or non-binary persons and get the same result.
Yes, it shows that love can be a fraught and messy business, so it’s got that going for it. But the problem is that it’s often an unnecessary complication to an otherwise perfectly serviceable plot. ‘Love interest’ in general has become a tired and worn-out plot device (you can always spot the flat, two-dimensional character who’s been randomly inserted into a story for the jaded cop/lonely schoolteacher/confused vampire teen to fall for) and the love triangle just adds a superfluous pointy bit to proceedings.
If you’ve found a love triangle in your plot, ask yourself this: is it absolutely necessary? Does it advance the plot? And if you remove it, will the story still function?
I’m going to bet ten of my English pounds that it will.
Now, as I always say, this list is not intended to be proscriptive. There’s no reason why you can’t use any (or all) of these devices in your novel or short story. If you can bring something fresh to the table, go for your life. Cliches are there to be played with and made into something new. I’ve dabbled with amnesia in one of my own novels (in a fresh way, I hope) and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t too.
Just be wary of what’s gone before and be aware that agents and publisher’s editors are most definitely turned off by these five tropes. And there are others: twins, superheroes, literal countdowns, coincidences, and many more. We’ll get around to some of them in future articles.
As for me, I’m starting to recover vague memories about the two lonely schoolteachers I’m in love with being trapped in an abandoned asylum with a group of their friends. I had a dream about it last night. And luckily, I found this big old rusty key in the forest this morning. I wonder if it’ll help.
Or perhaps I just need a rewrite.