Avoid the old cliches and let originality shine

Too often in fiction writing, especially short fiction, tired old ideas get recycled more often than grandad’s underpants when nanna goes on a coach trip. We’ve all heard the old, “And then he woke up and it was all a dream” example. That’s probably the most famous of the overused tropes and I fervently hope that no-one beyond grade 3 ever uses it again.

But there are a lot more tired old ideas that many people seem to think are still valid. You can take an old idea and put a new spin on it, but that’s a lot harder than you might imagine. I try it all the time and I often have to abort and start something new because I just can’t find the angle I’m looking for. The better idea is to try to come up with all new, original ideas.

Of course, there are only seven plots in existence (or whatever version of that old cliche you prefer) but there are numerous new ideas to play with. It’s the worn out old plots and twists that you should really avoid if you want to have a distinctive, original voice as a writer.

Strange Horizons is a weekly web-based magazine of and about speculative fiction. They have two great lists on their website of old ideas writers should avoid. One list is in general storytelling, the other is specific to horror. These are the best examples of lists like these that I’ve seen, so I’m linking them here. If you reproduce this post, be sure to credit Strange Horizons. You can find the general list here and the horror list here on the Strange Horizons site – they get updated, so check back from time to time. Take a while to read these – you’ll be doing yourself a favour.


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14 thoughts on “Avoid the old cliches and let originality shine

  1. Some of it seems a bit tautological:

    1. In the future, the punishment always fits the crime
    a. In the future, the punishment is highly excessive
    b. In the future, the punishment is highly mild

  2. I think they’re making a point of identifying the varieties of an idea that are all old hat!

  3. I think it’s a bit excessive, I mean there are other lists like “36 basic plotlines all stories fit under” which do a good job of outlining variations that 99.99% of fiction falls under — if that list was taken in the same spirit everything would be a cliche.

  4. The truth is, even if someone supposedly has a fresh idea, it is still old hat just rehashed in a different way. I thought both lists were condescending and elitist; by that rationale, everything King or Barker have ever written is drivel. I get no ideas from other writers, only from life itself. Any idea, no matter how overused it is, can be good if written right in a powerful original voice—which to me is far more important than plot or idea. A story doesn’t even need a plot to be good if it’s done right. I don’t think that “waking up to find it only a dream” is something so old and tired only a child would write. After all, people do have nightmares and they do wake up from them. It’s all perception and how well you can actually write such a story. Nothing is cliche is it has original voice you can feel when reading it.

    Nonetheless, you are correct in the sense that a writer shouldn’t just settle for any old mundane idea:)

  5. Bobby – I agree to some extent. But have you tried writing a story that turned out to be a dream? Making it interesting and seemingly original would be very hard!

  6. Yes actually I have . . . sort of on a few stories, but if they’re anything, they are original in writing style. Have you ever visited my blog and read any of my short stories? You should, I do come here all the time and like your blog quite a lot:)

  7. I don’t know if a really good story, which turns out to be a dream would work anyway. I always feel cheated to find out that everything I just invested my time in didn’t actually happen.

    If taken on face value, everything has been done before. I read a post once where the plots were branched out into hundreds of ideas that had been done before (you can search on my blog under the label plots if you really want to see it), and another post where there are only three original ideas.

    It doesn’t matter in the end. If you can come up with a new angle, and that only has to be the slightest of new angles, and tell it in your own voice, then you have written something original. The problem is when you try to sell it.

    Some editors lump everything into those old plot categories and if yours isn’t original enough (obviously very subjective), it won’t progress.

    In the end, you can only write about the ideas and story lines you have in your head and do as a good a job as possible. You can seriously do your head in trying to think up a totally new idea.

    Sound advice, Alan, to check what editors are putting out as stuff they don’t want to see. It also helps to read an issue or two so you can see what they have paid out cash for.

  8. Bobby – I have visited your blog, but didn’t read any of your shorts. I’ll correct that soon!

    BT – Good points. Much as we’d like to think that fiction markets are completely objective, they’re not. An editor that’s had enough of zombies, for example, will reject even a brilliantly written zombie story. As an editor that’s their prerogative. It’s up to us to write what we want to write and then place it in the market where it stands the best chance of being bought.

  9. Yes but a good editor will take more preventative steps to make sure their decision, whilst subjective, isn’t arbitrary.

    Also it reminds me of a post I just read [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/03/you_are_not_hir.html]: Most manuscripts editors get tend to come from writers who haven’t had theirs placed before so they are below average in quality. Meaning editors are getting a sample bias and end up underestimating the quality of an average new writer.

  10. Ah, the “good editor” – there’s a whole discussion in itself! In truth, half decent editor can spot a good story a mile off. The jaded editor, on the other hand, might be more arbitrary.

    I’ve edited for short fiction before. I can tell you now that the large majority of stuff is just atrocious and easily discarded within the first couple of paragraphs. Some stuff doesn’t even get that far – if someone blatantly disregards the submission guidelines, they don’t even get read. That leaves a small amount to be read in more detail and even the most jaded editor should be able to sort the wheat from the chaff there.

    Interesting article that you linked, however – certainly food for thought!

  11. Some submission guidelines are quite suffocating and a bit ridiculous, but I’ll follow them wisely. Having played music professionally for decades, I see many similarities between the music and writing business. I see Stephene Meyer of “Twilight” as being like the Britney Spears of writing—something teenage girls like for example. She is extremely lucky to have be where she is! I already know my work will not appeal to the mainstream, but I generally cannot stand mainstream novels. I had a band manager criticize our 18 minute guitar solos and demand we mold our songs around the vocals. So we kicked out the singer, fired the manager and played progressive instrumental jazz-metal. That’s when the band took off and made money. Musicians loved us, but normal crowds wanted vocals. So we had a small niche audience of mostly other musicians. I can get a job right now playing in a pop music band making really great money, but I’d be miserable.

    I see I’ll have to concede to some rules to get anywhere, but I can do that (though I hate rules). No matter what, I must love what I write or I won’t be writing it. Do you ever feel like you have to “sell out” to sell a manuscript? Or do you see it from a different perspective?

  12. I never write directly for a market, but I do try to carefully research where I’ll send what I’ve written. And there are so many indie publishing options out there now, you don’t have to sell out to anyone – do your thing your way and let the public decide. Works for me. 😉

  13. Thanks! There is so much info about publishing, it can be confusing and there are so many differing opinions. I’m glad you said that and will take your advice. I see getting published is an art in itself:)

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