Monday, June 27, 2011

Maybe the Plot UNthickens: Upending Cliches

It’s so easy to resort to clichés. Many times, we don’t even realize we’re using them. The popular girl? Let’s make her blond, pretty, wealthy, and mean. The jock? Let’s make him dumb. Where will the big confrontation happen? The prom, of course! Clichés are rooted in truth; they had to have happened so many times to become a cliché. It’s difficult to surprise the reader nowadays; they know all the familiar plot twists. I tend to write a lot of clichés when I begin outlining a novel. I lean on them when I can’t figure my way through a plot point or when I want to make my story flow in a certain direction. Many times, I don’t even realize I’m using them until someone points them out.

Once I spot them, I try to flip it and reverse it, to quote Missy Elliot. Take the familiar character or plot point and go in the opposite direction; see if your story can weather the change. As storytellers, we should aim to defy readers’ expectations. Not too much, though. Just enough to keep them on their toes. The first Pirates of the Caribbean took a familiar story – pirates stealing treasure – and flipped it: the pirates had to RETURN a stolen treasure. Here are some other examples:

The Silence of the Lambs. When Clarice Starling travels to the jail to meet Hannibal Lector for the first time, she’s led into the dungeon where the worst criminals are housed. The warden gives her a horrific description of Hannibal eating a census taker. We pan down the row of inmates, all of them scary, menacing, psychotic (Miggs!), taunting Clarice and the viewer.  Hannibal is the last cell. We’re expecting him to be just as terrifying as the rest of the block. But what does Clarice find when she reaches the end? A gentleman. Hannibal is clean, courteous, and calm. The audience’s expectation of a deranged cannibal serial killer has just been flipped. And the fact that Hannibal acts so well-mannered despite having committed those heinous crimes makes him much creepier. (I couldn't upload the clip, so watch the classic scene here.)

The Hunger Games
upended our expectations from the beginning. People picking up the novel knew it was about Katniss playing in the titular games. The first chapter describes the reaping, where we expect Katniss to get chosen. But then twist! [mild spoiler alert] Her younger sister Prim is chosen instead, and Katniss volunteers to take her place. Suzanne Collins could’ve just began the story with Katniss on her way to Panem. Throwing in that surprise spoke volumes about her character. Also, having an innocent 12-year-old girl picked to fight to her death showed the reader what kind of dystopian, dangerous world they were entering.

On a lighter note, Kody Keplinger did a great job defying the aforementioned popular girl stereotype in The Duff. (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) Bianca, the eponymous main character, is best friends with two pretty, blonde, popular cheerleaders. Their friendship is supportive and genuine, not based on lies or putting each other down. It was a nice change of pace from so many YA novels where battle lines are drawn between the popular and not popular.

I know when writing, it’s easy to go for familiar beats. But when rewriting, do a read-through to check for clichés with your genre, and try to tweak it just a little.  What are some of your favorite examples of flipped and reversed clichés?


  1. "Clichés are rooted in truth; they had to have happened so many times to become a cliché."

    Truer words have never been spoken! I agree with you about THE DUFF. Loved that her friends didn't belittle her and treat her like a tag-along nerd.

  2. Thanks for the comment A-squared! I was expecting Bianca's friends to be secretly nasty and mean, but no. They genuinely loved each other, and I loved that!

    p.s. Cute dog!!

  3. You nailed some perfect examples here. Really making my mind swirl with ideas about leaving out the norm. Thanks!

  4. Hey Deana - Thanks for the follow! Glad you liked the post :)

  5. Excellent examples. The surprise in The Hunger Games got me too.

    I liked Fiona in Shrek. Not your typical princess, and not your typical ending. A YA example is eluding me at the moment.