Friday, July 22, 2011

Cliche Plots and last round's finalists

Once upon a time, I only posted on Go Teen Writers twice a week. These days I feel like I could post 7 days a week if I wanted to spend that much time blogging.

A reader emailed me to ask, "I was wondering though if you had any advice for me as to how to make a cliche plot not so cliche."

One of my tips is to read a lot, especially in the genre you write. Not only does it help you know what's being done in your genre, it helps you determine what's fresh and what's not. How would you know "my knees went weak" is a cliche unless you'd read it in 10 different books? And it works for "bigger cliches" too, not just phrasing. I read an article last year saying red-headed best friends had become a cliche. When you read widely in your genre, you'll get a good idea of what's "done" and what's not.

But helping you determine what is a cliche doesn't help you change a cliched plot, does it?

Freshening a plot takes work. It involves pushing yourself, pushing your characters. A good place to start is asking questions - what if he's not handsome? What if she's not beautiful? What if the step mother isn't evil? What if no one is rich or poor, they're all just middle class? What if what she thinks she needs to solve her problem isn't it what she needs at all? What if it's actually the thing standing in her way? What if they're misunderstanding a key piece of information? What if they don't get a "happily ever after?"

Part of creating a fresh plot is not settling for the first idea that pops into your brain. It'd be great if our ideas were all perfection, but if you're like me, that initial idea needs work. Needs poking and prodding. Needs to be molded into something bigger and better.

If you write a genre like romance, freshness can be tough to come by. Romance stories follow a formula. (If they don't, they're not true romances, they just have a love thread.) Romance is:

Boy gets girl.
Boy loses girl.
Boy gets girl back.

Twilight, a romance. Gone with the Wind, not a romance. Because at the end, they're not together.

In a genre where the story follows a formula, what makes or breaks it is the characters. Say your hero is a country music hot shot, a guy brimming with confidence. And say your heroine, the main character, is a nobody. Very shy and insecure. What might keep them from being cliche romance novel characters? Their insides.

Why is she shy? Maybe she's been in abusive relationships. Maybe everyone in her family is outgoing, and she wasn't able to get a word in. Maybe she used to be outgoing, but embarrassed herself on stage one time and is now shy.

Also, what in her life is she confident about? We almost all have something we feel we're good at or can find security in. Maybe she's outgoing with kids or the elderly. Build in those contradictions.

Same with those confident characters. Where in their life are they broken? Where are they insecure? Susan May Warren did a fabulous job with this in Finding Stefanie. Her hero was a handsome, confident actor ... but he had MS. Wonderful character. Love that guy.

Developing layers in your characters will help build a freshness into your story and plot. Just whatever you do ... don't make the best friend a red head.

That's a joke.

Okay, those who placed last round are:

First Place
Ellyn Gibbs
Jordan Graham
Katy McCurdy

Second Place
Rebecca Pennefather
Jordan Newhouse (received 2 votes for second)

Third Place
Clare Kolenda
Adria Olson
Rye Mason

Honorable Mentions
Clare Kolenda (also placed third)
Rye Mason (also placed third)
Alyssa Liljequist (received 2 votes for HM)
Alyson Schroll
Rebekah Hart
Talia DeAndrea
Jenna Blake Morris

I'm still waiting to hear back from a few winners. I'll probably post winning entries tomorrow. Don't forget to enter this round's contest. Happy Friday, everyone!


  1. Awesome advice for a very-real problem. =) As I was formulating my characters for my current WIP, I had my fingers set to introduce my hero as a charming, witty man-of-that-era type, then stopped. Grinned. And thought, "What if I make him a bumbling, socially-awkward, scared-of-women type instead?" Which has, thus far, been the aspect most loved by my critiquers, agent, and editor. So while it's sometimes hard to avoid cliches, other times tossing them to wind can be SO MUCH FUN!

  2. Wow I really enjoyed this post Stephanie.It really got me thinking about how I could shake up my plot some.That is kinda funny, I went to a babyshower of my friend's and one of her friends that I didn't know was kinda goth, short pixie cut, and a red head.And I was like"Ooh she would make such a good character!!" Just thought that was funny :)
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥

  3. Thank you so much Stephanie! This answered my question perfectly and I appreciate you answering it in detail too. :) I loved the red head thing because in one of my stories the best friend is a red head. Maybe I'll change that so she just has red highlights... :D
    This really helped me so thanks again!
    Clare K.

  4. That's a thing I've wondered about...
    Though, for me, my WIP took on a mind of its own. The characters took it where they wanted it to go. I didn't even really know my characters that well (and still don't, I'm figuring them out some more before I start the second draft).
    I started out with a cliche plot and somewhere along the way it took wings and flew off in a totally different direction (which makes the first draft semi confusing)...but it was an awesome direction :)

    When no book is totally original, it's the characters that help it take wing and fly over the ordinary.

  5. Great post! Ive been reading James Scott Bell's "plot & structure" and am finding it very helpful!

    I was reading about the red hair best friend, looked over at the book I'm currently reading. It has two girls on the cover & guess what?! One of the girls has red hair, lol! It is by a well known author though.

    Another cliche thing I notice is characters with gray eyes

    1. Grey eyes? Why can't the authors just say blue? My main character is a sixteen-year-old boy with red corkscrew curls and green eyes. He does, however become less important in the third book in the series.

    2. My mc is a sixteen-year-old boy with red corkscrew curls and green eyes. It wouldn't be a problem if he didn't become a secondary mc in book three of the series.

  6. Great post. Made me think.
    Congrats to prompt winners!

  7. Stephanie,
    Do come up with all your examples on your own?

  8. AMAZING!! This seems so obvious when you say it, but it isn't! haha Great ideas.

    Oh ruined the ending of Gone with the Wind for me. THANKS!! lolol

  9. Awesome!:) I have been wrestling with this issue for a long time now and I have found what you say has really helped me. Thank you!:)

    P.S I have a question, does every romance have to be....boy gets girl
    boy loses girl
    boy gets girl back?
    cant a romance be something like...boy hates girl and then they fall in love?

    Thank you!:)
    - Elisabeth Greenwood

  10. PP.S I LOVE this website!:)
    - Elisabeth Greenwood

  11. Thank you so much for this post!!! I has reallly given me a clue on how to edit my plot! I have one other I'm trying to outline to see how it turns out!! :)

  12. This post was really awesome to read :)

  13. Sorry I've been AWOL. We had Connor's birthday party last night, so I spent my day cooking and making sugar cookies that looked like baseballs.

    Sierra, it'd be super fun to take a goth character and make her bubbly and outgoing :)

    Clare, I think the "Red head best friend = cliche" thing is more funny that it is something that should be taken seriously. What's MORE of a cliche - in my opinion - are these wild-at-heart historical heroines who have curly hair that they just can't seem to trap into a socially-correct hairstyle. Glad it helped :)

    Sananora, isn't that so fun? I love when characters hijack the plot. Despite how many rewrites it often involves...

  14. Leah, do you mean my examples of "Say you have a book that..."? Ordinarily yes. Often they're from a manuscript of mine or an idea I've had. But this time I borrowed my sample plot from the question asker :)

    Nicole, did I really? Still worth the read :)

    Elisabeth, "boy gets girl/loses girl/gets girl back" doesn't have to be taken so literally. Like in Pride and Prejudice, which is considered one of the great romances of all, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are never really together until the end. But he does win her respect and consideration only to lose it to an obstacle that doesn't really involve either of them, to something that happens with her sister.

    They must end up together for it to be a true romance. Those other elements - boy gets and loses girl - can be loosely applied :)

  15. Hi Stephanie,
    What do you think is the biggest cliché plot? And:
    Are vampires now considered cliché, or at least getting near being overused?

    - Paige Taylor

  16. Yeah, that's what I meant. You are always using examples that are great. I wondered if you had a hard time coming up with them? Sometimes the examples, like the ones you used to illustrate the elevator pitch, I think "I wish I had that idea?" or just good ideas in general

  17. Oh, I meant to say "what is the most cliché plot you have read?"
    I just looked over it again :)

    - Paige

  18. Paige, I assumed that's what you meant :) Let me preface this by saying I think any plot can feel fresh if the writing and characters are stellar. But plots I'm weary of are:

    1. Guy/Girl best friends who finally work through their differences and get together.

    2. Twilight knock-offs. By which I mean - she's a normal girl, though a little old for her age. He is otherworldly hot, and seems interested in her, but sends confusing signals at times. Turns out he's actually a vampire/immortal/other kind of creature, and they're destined to be together.

    Yeah, I think vampires have run their course for now. I read an article quoting several editors saying they're tired of vampires, werewolves, and dystopian lit. (Like Hunger Games.)

    And I know a Paige Taylor here in Kansas City ... but I'm assuming you're not her :)

  19. Leah, thank you! Both the elevator pitches were projects of mine. Glad they sounded good :) I can't yet prove that those are pitches that can sell a story, but they were at least approved by my agent.

  20. Informate, interesting post, as always. I've enjoyed reading all of the comments here. To echo, I still plan on watching/reading Gone with the Wind someday, but I'm disappointed that it doesn't end in "happily ever after." Oh, well, better to go in knowing that than to be disapointed, right?

    By the way, I just got back from a writer's conference this weekend (which is why this comment is so late) where we talked about "freshness" (among many, many other things). So this was a good read after that. :)

    Oh, and congratulations to all of the finalists!!!

  21. Yeah, I'm a different Paige :)