Predictable plots work in bad soap operas. Clichés work well in corny love songs. But a whole story jam-packed with them is the kiss of death for your novel. We’ve all read stories where we think, ‘Oh, I know what’s coming next,’ or, ‘I bet he’s going to say this or that now,’ and eventually we become bored and put the book aside.
The best stories are the ones that set us up; we think we know what’s coming and then the writer turns things around, adds a twist, or takes us in a different direction. The twist can be subtle or a cliff hanger. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s unexpected. Each story needs at least one of these. We know the hero and heroine will end up together, but what can we put as a bump or a surprise along their journey? We know the cop will catch the serial killer, but what is the sting in the tail?
It’s fine to go with a cliché at first – why not? It’s a good starting off point – but you need to rework, refine or reverse it.
- Rework it: How can you put a spin on it? Yes, she faints in his arms and expects to wake up in his bedroom. Instead, she wakes up in hospital. She didn’t swoon, but had a bad case of food poisoning! Use the cliché and then work in another surprise.
- Refine it: OK, so this one is a lot more subtle in its approach. Say your secretary is in love with her boss. It’s a big cliché but let’s keep it and refine. Maybe she’s unconsciously sabotaged all his dates, so he always reverts to being single and available. Next cliché – she undergoes a makeover to get him to notice her. What if the sexy makeover has another effect and gets a creepy guy in accounting to start stalking her?
- Reverse it: Can you change gender roles in a story? Maybe she is the lead detective, not your male character. Maybe he is a single dad who can’t find a date rather than the divorced female cliché.