Archive for the 'Fixing Cliches' Category

Mar 07 2011

Writing Memorably

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

1.  Think outside the box. When you’re writing, the first thing that comes to mind is usually the most conventional (and forgettable).  It probably came to mind first because you’ve seen it (or something like it) so many times before.  If for some reason you need to try something that’s very conventional, at least have characters respond in a different way or build to a different outcome or try a different angle.  For example, killing off the parents in a superhero story gets used more often than a taser at a hippie convention, but it was still extremely effective as dark comedy in Kick-Ass.  (Instead of leading to a “MOTHER, I WILL AVENGE YOU!”, it was a deliberately random aneurysm).  Likewise, instead of another scene where a protagonist saves a love interest, the fugitive protagonist of Point of Impact breaks into an FBI-guarded morgue to reclaim his dead dog.  It’s a memorable scene because the character is putting himself on the line for something that wouldn’t matter to pretty much anybody else.


2.  Let your characters act unusually compared to other characters in their genre(s). If the characters only make decisions and do things that 90%+ of other characters would do in the same situation, they’re probably going through the paces of a pretty banal plot rather than anything we will want to remember.  This is most immediately noticeable for protagonists, but distinctive villains can also excel.  For example, who else but Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter could get away with psychically strangling one of his boss’ subordinates in front of him or taking down two cops with his teeth?

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Jan 22 2011

Types of Story Strange Horizons Has Received Too Often

Published by under Fixing Cliches,Plotting

Strange Horizons has a list of stories it receives too often.  Here are some that I think are especially unpromising.

  • Person is (metaphorically) at point A and wants to be at point B. The character walks to point B, encountering no meaningful obstacles or difficulties. The end. (A.k.a. the linear plot.)
  • Weird things happen, but it turns out they’re not real.  (“It was a dream” or “It was insanity” are bad enough, but “It was a story the character was writing” is uniquely loathsome).
  • The main reason for the main female character to be in the story, and to be female, is so that she can be raped.  (Can I add “or so that she can fall in love with the protagonist?”)
  • People whose politics are different from the author’s are shown to be stupid, insane, or evil, usually through satire, sarcasm, stereotyping, and wild exaggeration.
  • Story is based in whole or part on a D&D game or world.  (Or any video games, unless you’ve been licensed to create a licensed work).

I’d like to sort of dispute Strange Horizons’ complaint about works that “[claim] that superhero stories never address the mundane problems that superheroes would run into in the real world.”    Yes, many superhero stories do handle such mundane, everyday situations, so such a claim is obviously incorrect.  But I don’t think it would be cliche, or otherwise problematic, to address everyday life in a superhero story.  Hell, at least one publisher (This Mutant Life) specifies in its submission guidelines that it’s looking for such submissions: “Stories which deal with the everyday lives of people with unusual abilities or physical characteristics are ideal [for us].”

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Sep 15 2010

Please Don’t Use “Guardian” as a Name for a Character, Rank, Group or Series

When your hero joins an organization, I would highly recommend naming the organization something besides the Guardians, and making his rank something other than a Guardian, and above all naming the series and/or book something better than something like “The Guardian.”


1. It’s generic and forgettable.  “Guardian” can apply to pretty much every superhero, every Jedi-like character, every law enforcement character, every pseudo-governmental character like Harry Potter’s Aurors, most urban fantasy protagonists, a ton of fantasy protagonists (particularly in epic fantasy), and many anime/manga characters.  Using a word that is so poorly-tailored to your particular story will probably make your characters and plots feel pretty bland.  It is generally more effective to use a more descriptive name that provides more specific information about what the organization/position does or what the series is about, the threat they’re guarding against, who’s doing the guarding, what the mood of the story is like, what their modus operandi is like, etc. Here are some examples of names that are more informative and interesting than “the Guardians.”

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39 responses so far

Sep 09 2010

Please Don’t Use “Is That a Threat?”

Published by under Dialogue,Fixing Cliches

I roll my eyes whenever a character asks another “Is that a threat?“*  The question is almost always a setup for a third-rate one-liner. Here are some responses that are usually poor.

  • “No. It’s a promise!” This is ludicrously cliche. If you’re hooked on that line, I’d recommend coming up with a different contrast. Maybe “It’s an opportunity” or “It’s a lesson” or whatever fits the situation.
  • “Yes,” “Absolutely” or any other generic yes answer. Generally, when a character has made a threat, the threat is so patently obvious that the question is completely unnecessary.  Unless the threat is unclear, “Is that a threat?”/”Yes” will only waste two sentences and make the first character come off as mentally slow.
  • “Take it any way you like.” This is pretty bland and cliche. I think this is usually a missed opportunity to come up with a dodge more uniquely tailored to the character and circumstances.  For example, if a distant father implies that his son will get cut off from the trust fund unless his grades improve, the father might respond to “Is that a threat?” with an action or line that suggests how unconcerned he is about what his son thinks.  Maybe he lights up a cigarette or dismissively changes the subject with something like “Chardonnay?”
  • No, it’s a fact.” Also cliche.

*”Is that blackmail?” raises similar problems.

Writing exercise: Write a scene that effectively uses “Is that a threat?”

73 responses so far

Feb 27 2010

Name That Superhero Funeral!

Superhero funerals are so common that they have their own page on ComicVine and usually so bland that they tend to run together.  Given a transcript for three pages from a superhero funeral, can you name the series? If the writing were actually distinct, that wouldn’t be difficult.

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11 responses so far