November 18 – 24: “Clichés—love them or hate them?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW members Nigel Bird, David Simms, Nick Kolakowski, Avanti Centrae, Lisa de Nikolits, Nicole Mabry, Keith Dixon, Susan Alice Bickford, T. G. Wolff, Dave Edlund, John Farrow and Leanna Renee Hieber are talking clichés: story; character; dialogue and setting clichés, do you love them, or hate them? Whenever you’re ready just scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along!


Leanna Renee Hieber is an actress, ghost tour guide and award-winning, bestselling author of Gothic, Gaslamp Fantasy novels for Tor and Kensington Books such as the Strangely Beautiful, Magic Most Foul, Eterna Files and Spectral City series. Her work has been included in numerous notable anthologies and translated into many languages. A ghost tour guide for Manhattan’s Boroughs of the Dead, she’s been featured in film and television on shows like Mysteries at the Museum.


USA Today bestselling author Dave Edlund is the award-winning creator of the high-octane Peter Savage novels, which include Crossing Savage, Relentless Savage, Deadly Savage, Hunting Savage, and Guarding Savage. A member of the International Thriller Writers, Dave’s action-political thrillers are often compared to the Dirk Pitt novels by Clive Cussler, the Sigma Series novels by James Rollins, the Jack Ryan novels by Tom Clancy, and the international thrillers of Steve Berry. When Dave isn’t cooking up the latest adventure for Peter Savage, readers can find him working as a leading expert in hydrogen energy. He is an inventor with 100 US patents and more than 250 foreign patents. He has published in excess of 100 technical articles and presentations and has been an invited author of several technical books on alternative energy. Dave is a graduate of the University of Oregon with a doctoral degree in chemistry.


Susan Alice Bickford was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Central New York, the setting for many of her thriller and suspense stories. After she discovered computer graphics and animation, Susan moved from New York City to Silicon Valley, where she became an executive at a leading technology company. She now works as an independent consultant, and continues to be fascinated by all things high tech. A Short Time to Die was released by Kensington Publishing in 2017 and was nominated for Best Debut Novel at Left Coast Crime. DREAD OF WINTER will be released in November 2019.


Keith Dixon was born in Yorkshire and grew up in the Midlands. He’s been writing since he was 13 years old in a number of different genres: thriller, espionage, science fiction, literary. Two-time winner of the Chanticleer Reviews CLUE First in Category award for Private Eye/Noir novel, he’s the author of eight full-length books and one short story in the Sam Dyke Investigations series and two other non-crime works, as well as two collections of blog posts on the craft of writing. His new series of Paul Storey thrillers began in 2016 and there are now three books in the series.


Nicole Mabry spends her days at NBCUniversal as the Senior Manager of Photography Post Production. Her nights are reserved for writing novels. At the age of seven, she read The Boxcar Children, sparking a passion for reading and writing early on. Nicole grew up in the Bay Area in Northern California and went to college at UCLA for Art History. During a vacation, she fell in love with New York City and has lived in Queens for the past 16 years. On weekends you can find her with a camera in hand and her dog, Jackson, by her side. Nicole is an animal lover and horror movie junkie.


Nigel Bird is the author of several novels, novellas, and short story collections, including The Shallows, the Southsiders series, In Loco Parentis, and Dirty Old Town. His work has appeared in a number of prestigious magazines and collections, including two editions of Best of British Crime Stories, The Reader, Crimespree, and Needle. As well as writing fiction, he has been a teacher for 30 years and has worked in a number of mainstream and special schools. He lives on the East Coast of Scotland in Dunbar with his wife and three children.


John Farrow is the Canadian author of six previous crime thrillers under his pen name, as well as seven literary novels under his real name, Trevor Ferguson. He has also had four plays produced, including Off-Broadway, and a film produced of one of his literary novels, The Timekeeper. As a crime thriller writer he has gained the most attention, being published in twenty countries and on every continent not principally inhabited by penguins. In both genres though, literary and thriller, he has earned an off-the-charts critical reception the envy of any writer. For his work as a novelist, he recently received an Honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree (how about them apples?) from the Vancouver School of Theology and also a Life Membership in the Writers’ Union of Canada in recognition of “extraordinary contributions to the union and the lives of Canadian writers.”


Lisa de Nikolits is the international award-winning author of nine novels (Inanna Publications). No Fury Like That was published in Italian as Una furia dell’altro mondo. Her short fiction and poetry have also been published in various international anthologies and journals. She is a member of the Mesdames of Mayhem, the Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters in Crime, The Australian Crime Writers, SMFS and the International Thriller Writers. Originally from South Africa, Lisa de Nikolits lives and writes in Toronto.


Avanti Centrae is the author of the international award-winning VanOps thriller series. The Lost Power took home a genre grand prize ribbon at the Chanticleer International Book Awards, and an Honorable Mention at the 2018 Hollywood Book Festival. Her work has been compared to that of James Rollins, Steve Berry, Dan Brown, and Clive Cussler. She resides in Northern California with her family and German Shepherds.


David Simms lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, working as a special education teacher, college English instructor, counselor, music therapist, ghost tour guide, book reviewer, and co-foundeder the Killer Thriller/Slushpile Band. He has sold several horror, mystery, and weird short stories to various anthologies. DARK MUSE is his MG/YA crossover that ventures into musical dark fantasy and celebrates the many students who’ve changed his life. FEAR THE REAPER is a thriller about horrors of the eugenics movement in America in 1933.


Nick Kolakowski is the author of Boise Longpig Hunting Club, the Love & Bullets series of crime novellas, and the short story collection Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me. His short crime fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Plots with Guns, and various anthologies. He lives and writes in New York City.


T. G. Wolff writes thrillers and mysteries that play within the gray area between good and bad, right and wrong. Cause and effect drive the stories, drawing from twenty-plus years’ experience in civil engineering, where “cause” is more often a symptom of a bigger, more challenging problem. Diverse characters mirror the complexities of real life and real people, balanced with a healthy dose of entertainment. T. G. Wolff holds a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering and is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.


  1. Working in a genre as we do, it’s hard to avoid some clichés – and I think our readers wouldn’t like it if we did.

    For example, one of my series features a lone private detective working from a disreputable office. Several of the books begin with the client coming to the office wanting to hire Sam Dyke to do something – find a person or help him/her out in some way. This, I suppose, is a setting cliché, but is essential to the genre – Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole novels often start in this way, for instance. The alternative is to have the PI go meet the client in their environment, where the PI has the opportunity to tell us, the readers, about the lifestyle or work habits of the potential client. The beginning of Chandler’s The Big Sleep is probably the most famous example of this version of the cliché.

    As a writer, then, I suppose I neither love nor hate these clichés … but I recognise their importance: the story must imperil the hero or heroine at some point (story cliché); the bad guy or gal must reveal their plans at excessive length (character cliché); the hero or heroine must be able to crack a joke at the most inappropriate time, to show how spunky they are in the face of death (dialogue cliché) … the art, of course, is to make these events, characters and dialogue interactions not seem like clichés, to make them seem inevitable and essential to how the story is to be told.

    And that, for me, is what makes writing in this genre so much fun – not necessarily to subvert expectations, but to use the reader’s expectations against them, so they know what’s coming but are still surprised when it arrives.

  2. In general, I do not care for clichés, unless used in dialog (the wittier the better). As a writer and reader I want something fresh and new, not a repeat of the same old trope. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to avoid inserting clichés into the manuscript, but I am constantly challenging myself to find other unique ways of expression to develop my characters and advance the plot.

  3. I recently watched the Danish police drama series Darkness: Those Who Kill. It’s a series that I would heartily recommend for anyone who likes to escape into a tense multi-dimensional thriller every once in a while.
    Though I loved it, I almost didn’t get past the early stages when the story was being set up. I was faced by one cliché after another and that really began to gnaw at me after a while.
    Take Jan. He’s a cop whose personal life is on the skids. He’s separated from his wife who couldn’t cope with his dedication to the job in general and one case in particular. He’s obsessed by the abduction of a young woman, has made unprofessional links with her family in a maverick-minded way and has a temper when things get in the way. He lives in a room let out by students and is happy to be alone.
    Then take his situation. He has close colleagues who work by the book, but stick by him because he’s good at his job. He has a boss who is becoming sceptical about his involvement in the case and higher up the ranks there are officers who just don’t see the case in the same way.
    And then enter profiler, Louise. She’s been damaged by previous work in similar situations. She’s committed to supporting abused women. She’s suffered, she’s good, she’s not sure she wants to work with Jan and she’s beautiful and single to boot.
    I could go on by looking at the nature of the abductions and the nature of the killers, but I think the point has been made.
    I managed to overcome my irritation because the plot was so absorbing and there were enough angles to every situation to keep me interested. I also began to realise how valuable the use of cliché had been to help me settle into the tale. Rather than create a barrier to entry, it had welcomed me like an old friend. I was on familiar ground. I may not have understood where the journey was taking me, but I knew I was in the right place and felt comfortable walking in those well-trodden steps.
    That got me thinking about my own writing. I’ve made a lot of effort over the years to avoid being too obvious. I’ve tried to turn things on their head or folded them inside out when I could. I’ve attempted to find the road less travelled and feel that in many ways I’ve succeeded in that. I think I’ve also given in to cliché in order to help me put stories together.
    Perhaps what cliché offers to the writer is a template from which to work. A skeleton offering bones on which to put the flesh. A scaffolding to support the main structure on which to climb. You can add whichever cliché you like at this point to show you’ve got the idea (another reason cliché can be useful from time-to-time).
    Take Jan again. If he were an average detective with a humdrum life doing everything by the book, would he have been of any interest on any level? I suspect not. By working with the cliché and then by personalising the mould until the character has been fully formed, the early groundwork can be forgotten and an original protagonist has been created. That skeleton was strong and well-formed and so Jan was able to become real and interesting as I watched him interact with the world.
    Having given the question of this debate some thought, I feel I’ve changed my own position. From thinking that falling back on time-honoured tradition is a little dull to me as a writer, I’ve realised how much I’ve probably relied upon it over the years.
    I suspect that when I’ve begun to form my early character sketches on the page, I’ve begun in the most obvious of places. I’ve tried to create people from nothing and wanted their hearts to be pumping and their lungs breathing from the start. It’s only when taking the cliché that I’ve created into the story to get to know them as they react to situations in their life that I’ve only truly come to know who they are. In that way, the template becomes something that can be left behind. By the end of the story, I know who the person is. At that point, I’ve revisited the whole piece and altered things so that those creations can react in the correct manner from the beginning.
    I was made to think of that after an edit of my latest release, Let It Snow. There was a note in the margin at one point that read ‘Given the character you have developed, I doubt he could do this easily’. The comment was spot on. It was something that the template I began with may have managed, but Detective Oliver Wilson would never have considered. It was a great spot by the editor and a reminder to me that I benefit greatly from the assistance of another pair of expert eyes on my work.
    So now I’m thinking I should embrace cliché instead of trying to kick it out as soon as it appears. I’ll at least give it a chance before showing it the door.
    Which brings me to the novel I’m about to write.
    I’ll need a detective. Someone down on their luck. Tough on the outside, soft and caring beneath. A maverick. Personal life in tatters. Likes a drink…

      1. I watched Darkness through the BBC iPlayer. I’ll have a trawl to see if I can find it anywhere else.

  4. I don’t think any self-respecting writer would ever admit to loving a cliché! But they can come in handy. If I’m stuck on a piece, with dialogue or a plot point or a character, and the only thing coming to mind is a cliché, I write it in, highlight the text in red and return to it later.

    It’s also handy to work with a clichéd character, only to subvert them down the line. The reader expects one thing and gets something completely different. Subversions always surprise me, as a writer. I’ll expect a character to do a thing and then they swing at me with an uppercut to the jaw and I’ll think well, I didn’t see that coming!

    Clichés can also help introduce a comedic element – exaggerating a cliché or parodying an archetype can create very funny dialogue and characters. It all has to be believable of course, but the truth about clichés is that they are true. They state the obvious in ways we can all relate to at an intuitive level.

    Which is why there are times I realize there’s a cliché in my work but I struggle to replace it with something the readers will relate to as instantly. Physical descriptions and geography are particularly tough for me and I wrestle mightily to come up with fresh descriptions that hit the nail on the head. There you go! I guess I should highlight that in red!

    One can also deconstruct a cliché by exploring it in the writing – so something or someone that may seem like a cliché becomes layered and complex as you look at the story behind them.

    Using clichéd characters can be handy when it comes to secondary characters because, without using a direct cliché that will cripple your writing and turn your readers off, you can use enough of the cliché that the reader will instantly understand what you mean and you can move on with the primary story. But I always try to give things a new twist, because I feel awfully lazy and guilty if I don’t, even in the tiniest of ways! I often tell myself, “Lisa, work harder! Come on, work harder!”

    Because, above all, one wants to be original. They say there are no new stories and I agree but there are new ways to tell them and that’s our responsibility. As a reader, I get turned off by a cliché, be it a phrase or a description and I’ve stopped reading bestsellers because of that, and I feel cheated by the author.

    One writer who never fails to come up with new characters and dialogue is Stephen King. I marvel at his writing because while so many of his books, and aspects within them, could be clichés, they aren’t.

    In researching and thinking about this topic, I came across a post (LastMindToSanity) asking whether subverting clichés has become the new cliché: “The dark, brooding anti-hero will have a heart of gold or an ‘unexpected’ sweet side. The demure princess will reveal herself to have an ‘unexpectedly’ rough or tough personality. The emotional center of the group, who’s supposed to keep everyone in high spirits, will have some ‘unexpected’ severe emotional hangups that need to be addressed. The sexist jerk will be an ‘unexpected’ sweetheart when they find someone they actually love. The timid person will ‘unexpectedly’ put themselves on the line when things get the most dangerous.”

    A bunch of responses said yes, subverting the cliché is the new cliché!

    I very much look forward to what the other panelists at this Rountable think, about this fascinating, age-old topic!

  5. A fantastic topic. Although using clichés and their newer cousins—memes—tend to get a bad rap in fiction, I think it of them as coins with two sides: good and bad.

    On the bad side (face down), they represent lazy writing. Particularly when used to present stereotypes about issues such as race, gender or ethnicity, they can be very negative. Personally I feel cheated when an author uses a cliché to entice me to feel a certain way about a character, setting, or story line.

    However, we are writing genre fiction and many of our readers, regardless of subgenre, are often looking for hints that tell them what to expect and to pull them rapidly into the story. For example, cozy readers want to know that they will find a familiar, non-urban environment where, to quote my friend and fellow writer, Mary Feliz, “People die but nobody gets hurt,” and family pets are never killed. Thrillers have greater latitude, which is why I love writing them, but they still carry their own reader expectations.

    Understanding what these are provide an excellent opportunity to work against expectations. In other words, turn a cliché or meme on its head. There once was a time when private detectives were all men. Picking up a book with a woman as a PI was unique and exciting. Although I still love those, they quickly became part of the standard list of story elements. The search for new and fresh twists continues to evolve.

    In my work, I like to play against the idea that rural living is safe, supportive, and full of pumpkin spice. I give a big tip of the hat to Daniel Woodrell, whose work fully sucked me into writing country noir thrillers. I consider setting to an equal character and in my opinion, it is one of the easier aspects to take advantage of memes and clichés to introduce something fresh or different.

    Pausing for comments and to see what my fellow participants have to say before digging in to more thoughts on character, dialog, and even (or especially) story.

  6. So happy to join in my first roundtable! Cliches in storytelling, phew what a topic! I think for the most part, I come from a different background than a lot of authors. I wrote my first creative fiction piece ever at the age of 42. I went to school for photography and currently work in television. I’ve been watching horror/thriller movies and shows since I was a child. It’s my favorite genre and it’s definitely rife with cliches. So for me, I kind of love cliches because they make up a huge percentage of my favorite genre. It’s really difficult to come up with something entirely original these days, so in my world, if you are doing something slightly different, even with a topic or setting that has been overdone, then I’m in! Serial killers, slashers, zombies, crime mysteries, etc…I could read/watch them all day long.

    However, as a writer, I try to shy away from cliched characters. There are cliched characterizations that have been so overdone, and with the wealth of diversity that is now prevalent in popular culture, falling back on stereotypes seems a bit lazy in my opinion. When I come across cliche characters as a reader, they tend to be one dimensional and therefore unrealistic. I need to believe in and care about the characters, even if they are evil, to become emotionally invested. I find that hard to do if they are too stereotypical. As for the rest, if a concept and setting creates great tension and suspense, then cliche it up!

    1. Having a background like yours is hugely helpful, I’d say! Particularly photography! Help you paint a scene! I recently got a copy of Three by Ed Kashi and the stories in those images…. I wish I could write them!

  7. These are all such great comments – I actually feel less guilty now, working with clichés!

    I read a book last night in one sitting and it was a cliché from beginning to end but it was a comfort read, well written, nothing new in either character, plot or dialogue but it was like hanging out with an old friend even although the author was new to me. It was a classic domestic thriller, a perfect Sunday night read. So clichés have their place for sure – you know what to expect and, if the book is well written, it’s still a satisfying experience.

    I get a lot of inspiration from watching TV thrillers – so all recommends greatly appreciated.
    I’ll check out Darkness:Those Who Kill for sure!

    I recently watched Criminal – it’s set in four countries: UK, Germany, Spain and France. I loved them all apart from Spain which just seemed completely implausible. The series is all set in the same room, same setup but different countries and it seemed to me they were trying to avoid the clichéd interrogator but with mixed results. So believability, for me, is crucial.

  8. Given that I have cheerfully come to crime fiction after decades of writing literary fiction where clichés are strictly verboten, I’ve not been inclined to embrace them now. On the other hand, the cliché in crime fiction is available to have fun with — when the right moment strikes the opportunity may be too delicious to resist. By having fun, I don’t mean making fun, but rather working with the convention in one direction than switching it out for something unexpected.
    Example. In a forthcoming book (Roar Back), I have the familiar scene where two mob guys drive another mob guy into the woods, and it’s obvious to victim and reader alike that we’ve been here before and that an execution is about to take place. To spin that and have something else take place entirely works the cliché in favor of the story. The cliché is brokered in such a way as to drive the narrative in a different direction.
    First, though, when straight on the nose, I do hate the routine cliché. The writer has a job to do and that is to deliver a unique and satisfying tale. While it may be true that clichés can convey truth, and they can be convenient and cozy, it’s also true that it’s lazy for a writer to depend on them. Read them often enough and they become a bloody bore. I often receive books from writers who are looking for a blurb, or editorial help. Nothing stops that process in its tracks more quickly than the indiscriminate and less-than-sophisticated use of cliché. So, I’m against them, except where they are used to wondrously upend themselves.
    Now, let me upend my own position right off the bat with a story about someone who held to my position. A European writer — and I wouldn’t give her name even if I remembered it, but I don’t — on a panel in Canada, spoke rather abrasively about cliché male heroes whose love life has crumbled and they’ve descended into alcoholism and depression. The male members of the panel, somewhat sheepishly, fought back on how our own heroes didn’t quite fit the description. That discussion, though, was interrupted by a member of the audience who was familiar with the European’s work. The reader pointed out that the European’s hero was neither a drunk nor in a bad relationship — at the outset of the series. In the latest book, however, the hero divorced, was drinking heavily, and had descended into depression. Ha! Busted. Perhaps we all need to be wary of the cliché that may unwittingly nab us.
    Story: cliché, for me, only works if it leads to being turned on its head.
    Character: walk the tightrope. My main character, for instance, is not a drunk, but he savors whiskey. He came to policework after kicking the tires on life as a priest, and later as a veterinarian. While he’s a smart, moral detective, he’s also a mystic, a bit of a Catholic heretic, and someone keenly interested in cosmology. I also give him an entirely different cultural background than my own, as he’s French-Canadian and raised on a farm. Everything is intended to make sure he’s his own individual and beyond this author’s ability to manipulate him. The writer who manipulates his or her characters is at risk of stumbling into cliché. Characters should be no different than any breathing human: they are themselves only, and nobody’s puppet.
    Dialogue: Here we can work with the tone and styles that work for the characters, and some of that has permission to sound cliché-like. I get around my cop sounding like a TV cop by having him openly detest cop-talk. He cringes when he hears it — which doesn’t stop me from having other characters use it. Bad guys can pull up some familiar talk because it’s fun, and the trick here is to set them loose with their own cool diction. I think with dialogue that clichés can add a lot and be enjoyed if we have fun with them and take them in cool directions.
    Setting: I guess this depends on the writer. I don’t hate them in other writers. For myself, I have the city of Montreal to play with, and even wrote one crime novel that covered 450 years of Montreal history. You can’t carry that off by resorting to cliché. My devotion is to the geography I know and love, and from there my settings emerge. Standard settings, which become necessary at times — cop stations, courtrooms, tattoo parlors, strip clubs — can all be treated with a fresh brush to keep them unique to the story being told, so that readers feel they have entered the world of the story that’s new to them and not something they’ve seen before, although some elements may be familiar and welcome.

  9. I agree about cliches being comforting. While I’m usually pleasantly surprised by new ideas in the Thriller genre, I also love reading a book that hits all the familiar marks and delivers an entertaining, albeit cliche, read.

    I also watched Criminal, I think I still need to watch Germany. I did like it a lot, and agree about Spain. My favorite thriller show is The Killing. Coming from a TV background, I loved the fact that it was supposed to only be a two season show about one story. And it was an incredibly engrossing and twisty story. All the posters I’d see in the subway reading “Who Killed Rosie Larson?” were brilliant.

    After the show ended, there was such a strong following that they decided to do a third season. The story wasn’t as compelling and for me, was much slower. But I soldiered through because I absolutely loved all the flawed characters. The studio produced the fourth and final season and sold it to Netflix. I”m so glad they did because it was one of my favorite wrap ups to a series. I learned so much about writing complex characters from this show, and while some of them did hit upon cliches, they also included much more to round them out.

    Sorry! I’ve digressed into my favorite topic, so I’ll leave it here. But so glad you brought up Criminal!

    1. Two shows are on the radar at the moment, either of which could have descended to cliché but haven’t. One is a Belgian show called De Dag (The Day) which follows a bank heist and hostage situation during 24 hours. When Episode 2 starts, we think we’re in for a Rashomon situation, where we’re shown the action of Episode 1 from a different perspective … but it’s cleverer than that. It’s completely engrossing and binge-worthy, and although you might think it’s going to follow a standard pattern – heist and resultant hostages – it avoids that pattern brilliantly.

      The second show is, I think, British and is called Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame in Japanese). It deals with a Japanese policeman coming to the UK to find his brother, who’s implicated in some light Yakuza business back in Japan. There are some elements of cliché – the policeman being a stranger in a strange land – but again they largely avoid it through interesting stylistic moves; for example, a reprise of an aspect of the plot is done in Manga/Anime fashion, and flashbacks are filmed in different styles depending on what kind of flashback it is – some are black and white, some are widescreen, some are split screen.

      With crime shows filling a lot of TV programming these days, I suppose it was inevitable that makers would have to start moving the goalposts to stay fresh and original. It doesn’t prevent clichés cropping up from time to time, but at least they’re being skirted by the more aware creators.

    2. I’m so happy I’m not alone in thinking that about Spain!! I loved The Killing too! And I agree about soldiering through and loving the flawed characters! PS Digress as much as you like – I love to hear about good shows! I consider it “research”!

  10. Hello, dear reader!

    Leanna Renee Hieber here, author of thirteen Gothic, Gaslamp Fantasy novels focusing on quirky characters and their favorite friendly ghosts saving the day and solving mysteries in the late 19th century. My latest, A Sanctuary of Spirits, just released on Tuesday! So, hello from book tour!

    I write Gothic novels. If you write in the Gothic vein, a grand tradition since 1764, then you’re aware of clichés, in fact you must embrace them. I have to write with earnestness and an eye to structure in what I hope is an entertaining and suspenseful read, with dread at the core. A Gothic novel is one that is a highly psychological narrative, with setting and atmosphere as an important key element. Dread is the engine of the Gothic plot, often as much as the direct action. So, making the cliché in and of itself of dread, the deep and thrumming threat, interesting and compelling is always a challenge. One I relish.

    But since the Gothic can tread close to melodrama in its intensity of emotion, I want to wink with my audience at the various outlandish scenarios my characters find themselves in. My characters will often be very self-aware of the fact they stepped into something Poe would have crafted. I allude to many classic Gothic references and my characters have a fondness for the narratives already, so I create for the reader a familiar playground to have fun in. To allow the reader to abandon themselves in.

    Because most of my characters are already believers in the paranormal and many are psychically talented, such as the Spectral City series star, Eve Whitby, who leads a team of all-female psychics known as the Ghost Precinct in 1899 Manhattan, there isn’t a descent into the horror of spectres, Eve looks at Ghosts as a “help, not a horror”, so her greatest fears come from direct threat of violence to her loved ones by outside forces and those who would wish to harm the spirit world, because often the living do not know the effect they have.

    The Gothic is full of character and plot tropes and I embrace them all with full awareness, but because I’m a character-driven novelist, all of those tropes are fully realized and fleshed out, many are turned on their head for effect and my villains are shadows in the background that emerge as full terrors as the stories progress, looming large on the stage I’ve crafted. In the Spectral City series, I explore the trope of ‘fake courting’ to get two of my main characters to appease meddlesome parents. The setup itself I find a delicious, delightful trope because of course the ‘ruse’ of their courtship reveals far more of a spark and a passion than either of them expected or were looking for. It’s been a slow-burn delight to write.

    What I’m praised most often for by my readers is my depth of character relationships and the atmospheric gaslit environment I plunge the reader into. If one embraces cliché in the right way, a story can feel like it’s a certain familiar comfort and a tried-and-true fun, if cliché is explored to full depth and possibility, no one feels like they’re just reading a retread. My fans think of my books as very unique in their blend of history, fantasy, romance, horror, mystery and suspense, because I lean fully into these structures and genre tropes, and all the ways they can be explored and made to embrace full, big-hearted adventure.

    Thanks for coming and for being a part of this fascinating discussion! I hope you’ll continue to ask great questions and I look forward to weighing in!

  11. I love this topic. Coming from someone who switches between writing adult and teen/MG novels, I’ve noticed much of the same tropes, cliches, etc that pop up in so many bestselling stories.
    To say it’s a double-edged sword would be the understatement of the year and also a cop out. It’s both necessary for learning, especially for newer authors and kryptonite for everyone – if used as is.
    To break it down: I read books in three manners. One, as a reader – strictly for fun. Two, as a reviewer, as I’m writing for four different venues and look for something different. Three, as a writer, often thinking “What can I learn about what TO do and what NOT to do?”
    All three hats I wear are useful and have taught me plenty about the construction of a good novel (not saying I’ve succeeded there – just that I understand what one is supposed to be!)
    Dialogue is tricky. Too often, the cliche is to sound too cute and cool when actual talking between characters is about as exciting as a corpse gathering a cloud of lazy flies. As a reader, I look for balance between the two, often opting for the lines that truly display character but also don’t rip me from the narrative.
    Characters are almost the same: we all want the next Hannibal Lecter or Jack Torrance, a living person on the page that transcends what we know but is also familiar. A tightrope walk if there ever was one! How to accomplish that? Cool backstory? Check. Flaws enough to sink a battleship? Check. Weird quirks? Check. Most great novels have them – but when is it a cliche? In my opinion, when I can guess where it’s going and where it’s been before I get there.
    I often scope out my characters and then purposely make a hard left turn with an aspect of who they are – and see if they’ll abide by it. Often, they’ll tell me something else that’s even more fascinating.
    Story is the easiest to avoid the cliche for me as I map out what I want to accomplish (before the story takes over and tells me to get the hell out of the way). By mapping it out in rough form, I can tell it it’s straying too close to the hero’s journey or typical three act rote book by numbers thriller/mystery/horror/YA/MG that’s flooding the market. I play with the “what ifs” constantly when something appears to be too pat and simple – or reminds me of something else.
    For example, the thriller I’m shopping now had the ending written for a long time – until I actually wrote it. Then I realized I was far from done. My story veered off into uncharted waters and dove deep. Whether it worked or not for an agent/publisher is yet to be discovered, but I’m happy that it deviated from my plan like it did.
    Finally, there’s setting. I think readers expect a certain familiarity with the description of the locations, wherever that may be.
    It can be local, domestic, international, or on a new planet – the description simply needs to enhance the story. I always check to see where I’m skipping through a novel. If it’s the setting (which is often the case), I wonder why – and notice many books describe places that have no bearing on the actual story.
    We don’t need window dressing.
    All in all, there are so many rules that beg to be broken here. However, if we break too many at once, will we lose the readers that depend upon them?
    That’s the key question (at least to me).
    I just wish we could figure it out!

  12. Giri/Haji should be on everyone’s radar, Keith. The first three episodes are terrific and the mix of influences and presentation adds to what is ultimately a gripping story.

    It looks as though there’s more love for the cliché than I was expecting. Though there seems to be agreement that it should be used minimally, there’s also a sense that it can be useful to reader and author alike even if for the author it’s only as a starting point to twist and remould.

    1. I’m still only two episodes in because I made the mistake of starting to watch Season 4 of The Man in the High Castle! Maybe the ‘love for the cliché’ of which you speak relates more to love of the genre tropes that readers expect and writers find themselves using … for me, as for many folks, I guess, a cliché is strictly speaking a form of words that is overused (that’s the origin of the phrase, after all, where printers had blocks of text that they could re-use without having to piece together each word from the separate letters). I’d hope all of us here would at least try to avoid those!

      I think the rest of what we’ve been discussing are largely ‘tropes’ – aspects of a genre that are expected and help to define that genre. For example, as an experiment I once wrote a romance novel under a pseudonym and after reading several for research, I could identify these tropes – tough, independent woman; unlikeable male; likeable male but with a dark secret; instant dislike between heroine and primary male … all very Jane Austen! To have written my romance without at least *some* of these tropes would have taken it out of the genre.

      I guess those of us here are aware of these tropes for our own work … or am I assuming too much?

      1. I think I was taking it from the initial opening of the initial question: ‘clichés: story; character; dialogue and setting clichés, do you love them, or hate them?’.

        If we’re sticking to cliche in relation to the level of phrases, I’m with lots of the other comments here. It’s acceptable (just and at times) in dialogue when they are framed by character, but should be avoided at all costs elsewhere.

        I derive a great deal of pleasure as a reader when I come across the perfect simile for a situation when it has been sculpted by the author rather than picked from the tree of old hats. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I enjoy poetry so much.

  13. I am really enjoying this conversation.

    I find that characters and dialog are areas where I have to be constantly on my toes. Exposition too, now that I think about it—all those scenic descriptions!

    I don’t worry about clichés quite as much for a first draft. I do edit as I go along but not if it significantly slows down my progress. I’m fine with putting in a comment like, “Needs improvement. More action, less talking heads,” and moving on. In this phase, leveraging a cliché, trope, or meme can be great as vivid placeholders that I plan to change later.

    The problem becomes not letting them stay there.

    My main characters are the easiest to avoid clichés since they are (younger) versions of me. The more peripheral a character is in the story, the more tempting it is to fall back on stereotypes and other tricks. I have to stay constantly on guard.

    Lately I have been very conscious of writing more diverse characters. So far, these have not had their own POVs but that is changing. When I undertake something like this, I often try out a short story. And for my latest book, Dread of Winter, I hired sensitivity readers and I have to say that the experience was fantastic.

  14. Good comments, and enlightening to read so many perspectives on what I took to be a rather simple question. Wrong!

    Anyway, I’ll go on the record and say I hate clichés in my writing and reading. At the same time, I’ll readily agree that they may be essential to period pieces such as a noir detective story and channeling Sam Spade is the cat’s meow. But that’s not a genre I read or write.

    As I mentioned previously, tossing in a cliché here or there in witty dialog suits me fine. Another good use of the cliché is when a foreigner is struggling to communicate in English–adds a measure of realism too.

  15. I’ve really loved reading all the comments! Sorry I was MIA for a bit, busy day!

    What’s wonderful is that this kind of chat gives one a fresh eye for clichés – I feel as if I have a freshened awareness when it comes to writing and film! Great to chat with everyone!

    And please keep those TV thriller suggestions coming (LOL and books, of course!)

    I think the most brilliant book I’ve read recently (that could have been clichéd but SO wasn’t) was The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan. You know THE book you wish you could have written? Well, that’s mine.

    And Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews. A lot of Crew’s books could be cliché but they are utterly startlingly brilliant.

  16. When it rains, it pours. So many good posts here. But I have a bee in my bonnet and want to put in my two cents by throwing my hat in the ring. My weary little head thinks in cliches, so I have to get out the sharp-as-a-tack red pen and criss-cross them out, because a little goes a long way. Remember, still waters run deep.

    Thoughts and prayers…Avanti

  17. Two anecdotes come to mind. As a young whelp, I came under the sway of William Falkner’s work. I have said in the past that I once wished he was still alive so that I could kill him. That’s because it’s hard, hard, hard, to slough off a giant influence. But work through it a writer must, learning every step of the way, until the kernel of one’s own voice and direction pops. No different with crime fiction; to be influenced is natural; to work through it is a hard, difficult slog. Some don’t bother, of course, which is when one writer’s clichés compound into another’s, then into another’s. But I think it’s the most wonderful work there when a writer emulates work that appeals to that writer then works through it toward their own new ground.

    I used to teach Creative Writing at university. Some students wanted to write genre, most often fantasy, and in second place, sci-fi. The university’s policy was a flat “no”. When I inquired on my students behalf, I learned that once upon a time the genres were permitted, but the faculty found that students writing in the genre way too closely repeated the work of their writer-heroes. Literary fiction, it was believed, provided a greater opportunity for the student writer to experiment with their own inner voices. Be that true or not, I have found that fledging genre writing frequently and very closely parlays the influences at play. Influences are necessary but must be fought through. That takes time and effort. Clichés, ditto. To know them is to dump them.

  18. I found myself thinking about clichés and dialog. Cliches in dialog often can work because many people do speak that way.

    Years ago, I remember a conversation with a software engineer in my group about a kind of new thing at the at the time which was teaching programming to non-programmers and people who knew nothing about computer science, etc.

    He said it was like teaching speaking in clichés to people don’t have original thoughts. For everything you feel compelled to speak about, there is a buzzword or some saying. And maybe this way of talking would overtake real communication. And so forth.

    Choosing to create a character that speaks this way all the time could be rather fun. I haven’t tried it as an intensive exercise, but I think that if done purposefully, it could speak volumes about the character.

    I certainly look for certain kinds of saying that convey age, locale, and other things.

  19. Cliches have there place for sure. As has already been mentioned, they are that old friend. And they are that string of comfort words that allow our minds space to imagine so much more beyond ‘that old cliche’.

    For example, when we think of a ‘white Christmas’, are we JUST thinking about snow and fir trees, or do our minds wander to ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and/or ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ and The Christmas lights we (or someone else) always put up and and and and…?

    Cliches are an old friend who reminds us of our own experiences. What’s not to love?

  20. Sorry to come into this late, folks!

    I love the responses so far. And yeah, it’s hard not to love clichés (they have their place!). They’re like slipping into a warm bath. But at this point, I feel they exist to be flipped—you start to do what the audience expects, and then you disrupt it, and do something radically different. In that way, you use the cliché as a basis for a truly memorable scene.

    When I was writing my latest book, “Maxine Unleashes Doomsday,” I found that I was integrating clichés into the first draft almost without thinking: they’re so ingrained into our writing consciousnesses, it’s where our minds go first when we’re churning out our first take on the story. It’s much harder to figure out how to subvert them in a way that’s innovative and audience-pleasing. For example, cliché dictates that the older detective will hate his new, rookie partner (especially if that partner is replacing the older detective’s former partner and best friend, who was murdered by a vicious serial killer, blah-blah); but what if you flip the cliché so that detective and new partner actually enjoy each other’s company a good deal? What kinds of innovative tension can you mine from that?

    Cliché is a fantastic springboard to something great. But our audiences are too smart these days to tolerate “regular” clichés very much.

  21. Question for the panelist here: Are there any favorite books you’ve read that utilize many cliches? Ones that because of the story, characters, setting, etc that just make you not care?
    I find this the case in several guilty pleasures but wanted to dive into this.

    1. That’s a really good question. I’ve cast my eyes over my bookshelves to see if I can find any work that relies on cliche, but I wouldn’t say any of them do. I’m going to have to think a little harder on that one. A lot of the old hardboiled stuff I have may contain plenty, but then again I don’t think they were cliched at the time they were written, so I don’t think they really count. I’m going to keep an eye on this to see what people suggest.

  22. Being in the far west time zone, I’m probably out of sync with most, but here goes for today.

    A sideline quirk to cliché is that we all develop our own clichés particular to the individual writer. They are constant with most any writer, and even more so with emerging writers. Sometimes these personal clichés take the form of tics which consistently show up, and mar, the work; sometimes they take the form of safe landing spots — at the end of chapters or within scenes. They’re irksome as they keep sneaking themselves onto the page under the guise of familiarity. Once the writer recognizes them, though, they become wonderful opportunities. Speeding through a first draft, they crop up all the time as the writer flies through on a magic carpet. In the rewrite, however, sighting them is a good thing, because it’s a signal to find something different, something original, something special, something the writer would never have devised on first pass. Ditto the broader clichés we’re discussing here. They arrive, they can be welcomed and serve a purpose in an early draft, but they signal an opportunity to find something finer, something wiser or more electric, the second or third or fourth time around.

  23. LOL, I was about to respond to David Simms and list a bunch of terrific books that are cliché-riche and then thought the better of it. I wouldn’t want to be excommunicated from ITW. Since cliché is not normally viewed as a positive thing, I decided not to call out those authors without first bringing them into the conversation 

    However, it did get me thinking a bit more broadly about… book covers. Full of clichés and tropes.

    Of course, if you are traditionally published, you have an excuse since publishing contracts usually give the publisher the rights to determine the cover.

    However, I will state for the record that I love my covers. They tell the reader exactly what kind of book to expect and I think they really work.

    If I see a quaint shoppe with a cat outside and cupcakes in the window, or a dramatic mountain scene with a handsome couple, or the skyline of Paris through a rifle scope, I know what type of reading experience to expect.

  24. I gave this task to my writers’ workshop last night. It was amazing what they came up with, using the cliches as building blocks to jump off of before constructing something new, crushing the life out of the tired ideas until something new rose up.
    Kinda like a Frankenstein’s monster – but on the pages.

  25. Edit to my earlier post: I wasn’t asking to out anyone – cliches work in many cases. The guilty pleasures I referred to ALWAYS have that special something that makes it stand apart from the crowd.

    I know I’ve used them in my work, most often not realizing it or purposely doing so to emphasize a point.

    I’m thinking more of the “classics” in our world than contemporaries. I wouldn’t want anyone to come after me! 🙂

  26. In reading the broad range of replies to this topic, it occurs to me that term cliché probably also has a broad range of interpretation. According to one online dictionary, cliché means “a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox.”
    There is a lot of subjectivity embedded in this definition. What one persons considers to be a cliché may not meet the definition in another person’s mind.

  27. Apologies that I’ve been MIA – such a crazy week! Wow – so much food for thought here, LOL! I’ve really enjoyed this discussion so much! I’m going to revisit this chat more than once to make sure I didn’t miss anything!

    I’m going offline this weekend to try to find an abandoned old motel in the frozen far north – and, just for fun, I’m going to take a notebook and pen all the clichés that come to mind along the way! Happy Weekend, All, and happy writing!

  28. Ooh have fun Lisa! I agree with Dave, it’s such a broad definition, especially since this topic refers to cliches in dialogue, character, setting, plot, etc…For me, I’m always trying to do something new, but again, it’s so incredibly hard to do something entirely new nowadays. It’s like scraping the bottom of the barrel of ideas, hoping to pull out a morsel everyone else before you didn’t see. If you can find it, then kudos! But if you can take an idea in any of these areas and turn it on it’s head, or twist it even slightly, as a reader and a writer, I think there’s still a lot of value in that for all the reasons stated here. Loved seeing everyone’s responses. A lot to unpack here!

    1. A lot to unpack indeed! PS I found a really great abandoned building on the trip – awesome material – a clichéd setting in a way but also, so open to possibilities – I’ll find my morsel!

      I too loved all the responses!

  29. Here are some shows that we really enjoyed. We watch a lot of Nordic and European crime.

    The Bridge– Danish/ Swedish nothing cliched about Saga Noren
    The Teach-Polish
    Below the Surface–Danish
    Wisting–Norwegian. Found the books by Jorn Lier Horst after watching this.
    I Know Who You Are–Spanish
    La Foret–French

    Very interesting cultural differences particularly in the way police and legal systems work. And plenty of fabulous scenery, particularly in Trapped.

  30. Coincidentally, a friend and fellow crime writer wrote on Facebook that he’s fed up with how overweight people are portrayed in crime fiction. Often obesity portends nastiness, in what he’s been reading. There are clichés that, through repetition, are demeaning and downright offensive. It’s not what we’ve been talking about, I know, but it’s worth a mention as a side issue. It’s one thing to have the good cowboy wear a white hat and the bad cowboy the black, but it’s another … you get the picture. In taking up a writer-in-residence gig one time, my wife and I had to remove a few dozen plaster heads from view in the home we were renting, all depicting the worst ideas of ethnic stereotypes. The good people renting their home to us thought they were delightful, and projected no malice. While their eyes noticed no injustice, injustice was being communicated, and that’s one example where the cliché is not welcome. Writers do get away with that sort of thing, readers often don’t notice, but it still amounts to a form of drivel.

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