This has happened to everyone so often it’s a plot cliché in itself. You’re watching a TV show or a movie or reading a book and instead of being surprised by what happens next, it has you rolling your eyes either because you saw it coming a long way off or because you’ve seen the exact same plot point in about a thousand other TV shows, movies and books.
Now the list could potentially be as long as the proverbial never-ending piece of string but here’s a few humdinger plot clichés to be avoided if at all possible (and it’s almost always possible).
Child Investigating Murder of Parent
This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone but if you’re in Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, the UK or any European country, the local police forces are reasonably adept at investigating and solving crimes, especially murders. They really don’t need the assistance of an untrained and likely biased relative of the victim to get the job done. And if the police can’t solve a murder with all the tools they have at their disposal, then the likelihood of a regular citizen doing so is almost non-existent.
This goes double for a child of a murdered parent who goes on to become a member of the police force with the specific goal of solving their parent’s murder. In the real world, there is not a chance in hell that they would be assigned to the department responsible for the case. And any police officer accessing police files not directly connected to their specific case load would be found out quick smart as detailed computer logs are kept these days.
One of the biggest complaints in fiction is a complete lack of realism and this cliché ticks the box in a huge way.
Innocent Young Girl Investigates Noise in the Basement When Known Serial Killer Is on the Loose
This one happens almost exclusively in crime and horror fiction and as so perfectly portrayed in Scream 2, when this happens the audience throws popcorn at the screen.
Most people in real life have no desire to confront unknowns in enclosed and darkened spaces from which escape in the event of encountering the source of the noise is almost impossible. So why do we constantly force fictional characters to do it? Yes, we like strong characters but we also like characters with a little bit of common sense, even those unlucky enough to have been born blonde and beautiful and then typecast to die in a basement.
Guns Jamming at the Crucial Moment
I have no doubt that in the real world and in real life that guns jam. But isn’t it just a tad too convenient when a villain’s gun jams at exactly the precise moment to allow the hero to make a getaway?
This sort of plot cliché is known as a deus ex machina and this is from Wikipedia: “Aristotle was the first to use deus ex machina as a term to describe the technique as a device to resolve the plot of tragedies [That’s how old it is!]. It is generally deemed undesirable in writing and often implies a lack of creativity on the part of the author. The reasons for this are that it does not pay due regard to the story’s internal logic…and is often so unlikely that it challenges suspension of disbelief…”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Guards Falling Asleep While on Duty
Maybe I’m just yearning for a better breed of both hero and villain. But villains who employ henchmen prone to taking cat naps on the job just strike me as doomed to fail. And heroes who are simply able to tip toe past to gain access to whatever their target is don’t seem particularly heroic, just particularly lucky.
Yes, it’s easy writing but it’s also lazy plot development.
Characters Being Shot in the Butt
Characters being shot in the butt seems to be a plot cliché used when writers are trying to inject some humour into their writing. But ask the person being shot in the butt how funny they find it. About as funny as being shot anywhere else in your body.
The other thing about being shot in the butt is that your character has to be turned away from the gun, meaning they are either being ambushed or running away. Hardly the mark of a hero. Heroes retreat by scurrying backwards while laying down cover fire. Cowards retreat forwards while uselessly covering their heads with their hands. Which do you want your character to be?
Characters Being Brought Back to Life When They Were Clearly Dead
I’m not talking about twenty or thirty minutes without a heartbeat here. I’m talking about characters who have been gone multiple years or multiple books or multiple movies and were known to be long dead suddenly reappearing. It’s emotional trickery. We’ve been forced to grieve for these characters and have moved on. And now the equilibrium of the fictional universe we are choosing to spend time in has been completely upset.
If you have to rely on a long dead character to tell your story, then there is more wrong than just the fact that someone has returned from the dead. There are huge problems with your entire story and your entire approach to telling that story.
The easiest solution when you identify a plot cliché in your own writing is to simply do the exact opposite instead:
- Don’t have a child investigating their parent’s murder. Have an unrelated and qualified police officer do it.
- Don’t have an innocent young girl investigating noises in the basement when a known serial killer is on the loose. Have her call her parents or the police or a neighbour.
- Don’t have guns jamming at crucial moments or security guards falling asleep on duty. Have your hero actually come up with an ingenious way to foil villains with perfectly functioning weapons and get past security guards who are alert at all times.
- Don’t have characters being shot in the butt. Have them being shot in any other body part.
- Don’t bring characters who were clearly dead back to life. Let them rest in peace or don’t kill them in the first place.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Feel free to add your plot clichés to be avoided like the plague in the comments section.