If there’s one criticism most writers have received at one time or another in their writing careers, it’s that their work is clichéd—in some way. It might be their story’s premise, or it might be a character or two, even the protagonist. Whatever happens to be clichéd is old, well-tilled soil, the road we’ve been on before, old hat—all clichés to describe clichés. In a word, a cliché lacks freshness or originality, and even the word novel means new, different—not the same old thing we’ve seen and heard over and over. So of course if writers want their work appreciated, valued, and accepted for publication, they must find ways to avoid clichés of various kinds.
Plot is an important fictional element and one that is subject to cliché. Certain topics garner a lot of attention at different times. They’re in the news, so to speak. Cliff Garstang, author of the award-winning In an Uncharted Country and editor of Prime Number magazine, tries to stay away from some plots that turn on topics that are “just too familiar,” and among these he lists “senile parents, cancer victims, cheating spouses, partner dying of AIDS.” Even so, as he points out, these human ills and problems do certainly make up real life, so why should a writer “completely ignore them?” And in addition, “all of them are useful metaphors for other aspects of life.” So if Garstang tends to avoid plots that turn on these overused topics, he does believe writers shouldn’t utterly avoid them—yet to handle them well is clearly a challenge: “The trick, I think, is to layer stories effectively. Okay, so someone in your story has cancer. That can’t be all that story is about, but perhaps the cancer is in the background and what’s really happening is . . . something else.”
Robert Garner McBrearty is a recipient of the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award. McBrearty’s solution to “predictable” plots, akin to Garstang’s, is “to take the story elsewhere, not to deliver the expected trajectory or ending.” This mustn’t be done, though, at the expense of “internal consistency and authenticity.” For McBrearty, surprise is the key element, but this comes with a caveat: “Merely being surprising for surprise’s sake is almost its own cliché. The surprise has to be earned; it has to feel right.”
Tikvah Feinstein, editor of Taproot Literary Review, has tired of coming across two predictable plots: the “long estranged and then reunited” one and the “I fell in love again plot, often after a long pulling apart and a sudden maturing.” Feinstein explains her antipathy toward these two plotlines: “At Taproot we read a lot of stories with hospitals and nursing home settings where the ‘end of life’ drama is played out by a survivor who has lost a last chance to say something he/she should have said long before.” This plot becomes too reductive, Feinstein suggests: “Writers should keep in mind that it’s easy to fall into a let’s-fix-it story line. But conflict in the reality of relationships, unpredictability and surprising resolution is the plot and story line we seek.” Like Garstang, Feinstein doesn’t rule out using such plots, but she does emphasize that they “are hard to write in an unpredictable style.” The payoff is that when the writer freshens them up, “they can be fantastic.”
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