Everyone knows you’re not supposed to include clichés in writing. Unfortunately, a lot of people do. This is how certain scenes, lines of dialogue, and techniques become clichés in the first place. The following is a public service announcement, telling you what’s already been done so you can do something more original.
Don’t be ashamed if you recognize some of these in your writing—I’ve written a few myself.
But also don’t say, “Well, mine will be different. Mine is necessary.” It’s probably not. Think of something new and creative.
1. Starting with an alarm clock.
There are all sorts of ways to start a chapter or a story. Don’t choose this one. In fact, unless something extremely interesting happens to your protagonist the second he wakes up, you’re probably starting too early anyway. Begin in the middle of the action.
If the alarm clock blows up, is actually an alien robot in disguise, or isn’t there because the protagonist wakes up in a room he’s never seen before, then you can start with an alarm clock. But only then.
2. Having a character pass a mirror so you can describe what he/she looks like.
The “mirror technique” can be extended to include any description that sounds awkward to readers, from, “she combed her fingers through her light brown, slightly wavy hair,” to “he stared at her with his piercing blue-green eyes.” These kinds of descriptions sound like the author is frantically trying to tell the reader something. Real description should blend in, and probably won’t come all at once the first time we meet a character.
Some safe ways of doing physical description that feel more natural: comparing the character to a family member and describing similarities or differences, showing the character thinking about what he doesn’t like about his appearance, mentioning only a few unusual features that characterize that person, having someone make fun of or compliment the character’s appearance, and anything else that involves some other relevant action or dialogue.
3. Describing a routine
If the routine is something the readers will be familiar with, then don’t include it. We know how most people brush their teeth. And make tea. And start the car.
I’d rather hear about how someone in the hallway told a joke, making the teenager choke and swallow a gulp of Listerine. Or about the way the five-year-old tries to pour a plastic pot of Kool-Aid in the proper manner. Or how, the second the car started, a muffled, entirely-too-cheery voice from the backseat said, “Looks like you’ve got engine troubles.”
Describe that, and I’ll be interested.
4. Ending a person-goes-unconscious scene with, “and then…blackness.”
Or anything equivalent to that. There aren’t a lot of really original ways for someone to go to sleep or get knocked out, so it’ll take work to come up with something new.
But do the work. Try writing a knockout scene that could only be written for your particular character. It might combine aspects of her personality and the way she would react, or include one last thought that characterizes her.
5. Having a Christian character know and quote an appropriate Bible verse.
This only feels natural in very limited circumstances. If you introduce a pastor’s wife character whose sole purpose is interjecting words of wisdom at various times, I’m not buying it as a reader, even though it’s perfectly plausible that she would say things like that. But if you describe a woman with early-stage-Alzheimer’s who mutters her childhood memory verses to herself, terrified that she’ll lose her grip on something very important to her, I am there. It works, suddenly, because it’s not a cliché anymore.
6. Ending a chapter with someone shouting “Oh no!”
Add in here any equally intentional cliffhanger. If the reader can tell you’re trying to cleverly keep information from them, it’ll probably just be annoying. Each chapter should have a tiny bit of resolution to it at least, and shouldn’t feel like you just got tired of writing the chapter and cut it off after a really dramatic line.
7. Making the villain describe the plan to an underling.
Don’t ever have the bad guy talk just because you need to give the readers critical details they need for the plot. These kind of info-dump speeches tend to be more common on the villain side of things, but the same applies to protagonists. If you do a good enough job of placing hints and describing what actually happens in the action scene itself, you shouldn’t need a long speech ahead of time explaining the nefarious scheme and the intended negative consequences.
Note: There are ways to do pretty much all of these things in creative, non-cliché ways. The fact that they are clichés can even be to your advantage if you want to make things funny. The only part of Shrek that I remember is Princess Fiona singing sweetly to the bird…then hitting a high note that makes the poor thing keel over. If you’re going to use a cliché, give it a surprise twist we didn’t see coming.