February 11 – 17: “Story, character, dialogue and setting cliches–love them or hate them?”

This week ITW Members Mark Alpert, Ralph Pezzullo, Lori Armstrong and Colby Marshall take on cliches: “Story, character, dialogue, setting cliches – do you love ’em or hate ’em?”


Ralph Pezzullo is a New York Times bestselling author, and award-winning journalist and playwright, and screenwriter. His books include Jawbreaker, Inside SEAL Team Six, The Walk-In, At the Fall of Somoza, Plunging Into Haiti (winner of the 2006 Douglas Dillon Prize for American Diplomacy), Eve Missing, Blood of My Blood, Most Evil, The Navy SEAL Survival Handbook, the SEAL Team Six thriller Hunt the Wolf, and the upcoming Hunt the Scorpion and (with Don Mann).

Lori Armstrong left the firearms industry in 2000. Her 1st book, BLOOD TIES was nominated for a 2005 Shamus Award. HALLOWED GROUND received a 2006 Shamus Award nomination, and won the 2007 WILLA Cather Literary Award. SHALLOW GRAVE was nominated for a 2008 High Plains Book Award and finalled in the WILLA Cather Literary Award. SNOW BLIND won the 2008 Shamus Award. The 1st book in the Mercy Gunderson series, NO MERCY won the 2010 Shamus Award for Best Hardcover Novel and finalled for the WILLA Cather Literary Award. MERCY KILL released in Jan. 2011. MERCILESS released in Jan. 2013. Lori lives in western South Dakota.

Mark Alpert, author of FINAL THEORY, THE OMEGA THEORY, and EXTINCTION, is a contributing editor at Scientific American. In his long journalism career, he has specialized in explaining scientific ideas to readers, simplifying esoteric concepts such as extra dimensions and parallel universes. And now, in his novels, Alpert weaves cutting-edge science into high-energy thrillers that elucidate real theories and technologies.

Writer by day, ballroom dancer and choreographer by night, Colby Marshall is a contributing columnist for a local magazine and a proud member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. She’s active in local theatres as an actress and choreographer. She lives in Georgia with her family where she is hard at work on her new thriller.

  1. Okay, let’s talk about character clichés. Specifically, the cliché of the unhappy, damaged hero or heroine. I blame Hemingway for this one. Although there are plenty of damaged fictional heroes who predate Jake Barnes of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway upped the ante by giving Barnes a particularly debilitating injury. And he forged the mold for describing how the hero deals with his damage: by manfully hiding his pain during the day and nursing his wounds at night. His famous line: “It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.”

    This was great, original stuff when The Sun Also Rises was published in 1926, but since then generations of thriller writers have beaten it to death. Think of all the fictional detectives privately mourning lost spouses or children or partners. And yet there’s a certain logic to choosing this kind of hero or heroine. Unhappy, damaged people are usually more interesting than happy, healthy ones. And their hidden injuries can be woven into the thriller’s plot, which can force the character to confront his or her demons. Think of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.

    In my latest science thriller Extinction (which comes out this week!) I imagined a character named Jim Pierce who lost his arm in the terrorist bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998. But Pierce, a former Army intelligence officer, isn’t devastated by this injury; he reacted to the loss by leaving the Army, going back to school and becoming an expert at building high-tech prostheses. As the novel begins, he’s designing prosthetic arms for the maimed soldiers returning from Afghanistan. But Jim has other wounds that haven’t healed as readily. He has lost contact with his daughter, a 22-year-old hacker who rebelled against him by dropping out of college and joining a WikiLeaks-like organization that specializes in publicizing classified military documents. Unfortunately for her, she uncovers a government project so secret and abhorrent that several intelligence agencies have marked her for elimination. And though Jim is crushed by her betrayal, he rushes to her defense.

    So I admit it: my hero is emotionally damaged and unhappy. And he deals with his troubles in typical Hemingway fashion, keeping them private. But as the book progresses he opens up a bit, and at the end he experiences a high-tech catharsis. That’s probably a cliché too, but it’s the best part of the novel, so I don’t regret writing it. There’s also something original in that chapter, something I’ve never read in any other book. And I think that’s one of the great joys of writing, combining familiar, well-worn parts in unusual ways to create something that’s fun and new.

  2. I’m in total agreement with Mark when he says it’s “…one of the great joys of writing, combining familiar, well-worn parts in unusual ways to create something that’s fun and new.”

    Let’s face it: one reason cliches exist in the first place is because at some point and in some way, they have been effective. For centuries, authors have been taking the lead of other authors and using devices such as the damaged hero or heroine because those character flaws made the character imperfect and relatable to audiences. The damsel in distress is used over and over again because at some point in time, audiences rooted for the hero to save her.

    That said, because those favorite cliches have become so ingrained in literature to the point that they’re tired, in order for them to be effective now, they need a new spin. They deserve their place in thrillers, especially, because what would a thriller be without some of them? If we eliminated the terrorist, the serial killer, the mafia boss, and the vigilantes from the thriller genre, we would lose a lot of great stories. The trick is to take a plot we’ve seen a dozen times and twist it until it doesn’t resemble those stories everyone is sick of. The government assassination is a classic staple of the genre, and if authors aren’t careful, it could get tired, too. But for example, Brad Meltzer’s new The Fifth Assassin turns the normal assassination attempt story on its heel, asking what if the four previous presidential assassinations weren’t operatives working by themselves and instead, were part of a group working together. In my debut novel, Chain of Command, a simultaneous assassination of the president and vice president of the United States rockets the first woman–the Speaker of the House–into the presidency. Both stories use a familiar premise, but they’re two incredibly different tales that take the basic idea and tweak it into something unseen.

    I think people like the familiar. People are creatures of habit, and it explains why for years, James Patterson has made a killing (no pun intended) off of serial killers: people like reading them. Once they know what they like, many times they stick with it. Cliches make sense to your average audience. Cliche can be redefined so that rather than meaning platitude, it is more of a spring board from which newer, more unique ideas can stem.

  3. Who isn’t damaged by life in one way or another? By the way, Hemingway didn’t invent the damaged hero. That cliche has been around as long as people have telling stories.

    It’s the nature and source of the damage, and how an individual deals (or doesn’t deal) with it that makes him or her unique. I guess that’s another way of saying that to a certain extent cliches can’t be avoided when it comes to character and dialogue. But it’s the “uniqueness” that makes things interesting.

    Sure, people use cliches when they speak, just like they follow patterns, and react to things, similarly. But does that mean I like cliches? Hell, no. Instead, I try everything I can not to use them, especially in terms of story and setting. Isn’t part of our job is to keep readers guessing, so they turn the pages to find out how the problems and dilemmas developed in our stories resolve? You can’t keep them on the edge of their seats, if they see what’s coming, or know what a particular character is going to do.

    Originality, variation, peculiarity of character, unique circumstances, heightened reality, spontaneity, unexpected problems and complications. Those are the things I look for and try to achieve.

  4. The fun part about being a writer is twisting those cliches.

    Are settings cliched? Yes. Think about the mean streets of an urban area, or the race across the globe to catch a terrorist, or the small town, or the halls of justice…it’s all been done. Does that mean we absolutely have to come up with something new, that’s never been done before every single time we put pen to paper? Honestly? No. We can’t. It has all been done. There is a sort of comfort in familiarity in those cliches because we don’t have to suspend our disbelief. There’s nothing I hate worse, as a reader, than books where the authors try too hard to be different, and the end result is a book that is completely unrelateable.

  5. Yes, I had that problem for a while: characters who were too weird. My wife pointed it out to me. She said, “No one wants to read about these people, they’re just too strange. Why don’t you create a character who’s more like you? Because you’re not so bad.”

    We should probably talk about cliched phrases too. They creep into my writing (on stealthy feet!) when I’m writing late at night (like now) and I’m too tired to think of anything original. I say to myself, “Yeah, I know this is a cliche, but I’ll leave it in as a placeholder, because I can’t think of anything better. When I look over the text tomorrow, I’ll replace it.” But then I’ll get busy the next day and never get around to it. They’re insidious! And embarrassing! I swear to God, just an hour ago I wrote, “Her eyes seethed.” It’s not only a cliche, it makes no sense. How can an eye seethe? Okay, I have to stop writing this post right now so I can go back to my manuscript and delete that sentence.

  6. I have that same tendency to do “placeholders.” Usually, when I do that, I flag them or highlight them to make sure they don’t stay, since it’s all too easy to forget about them. If I catch myself using one, though, the thing that works best for me is to ask right away what else would work. If I think about writing, “avoid something like the plague,” it’s an even better practice for me to use something else as a placeholder, even if I need to come back an tweak later. I’ll ask myself what else I avoid. Sometimes the answer is that I avoid rewording cliches, but usually asking questions will lead to more interesting phrasing.

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