Thursday, September 23, 2010

Plot Devices: Cliche or Useful

Cliches. They are something many of us immediately roll our eyes at. There’s an immediate negative connotation to them. But things are cliché for a reason. Some of the best plot devices are considered cliché only because of their prevalence. But why are they prevalent? Because they work. Sure, they can be a cop out at times, but think about the books where some plot device was unique but not well executed? A well used plot device isn’t just cliché. It’s a great element, like the following ones.

The Love Triangle: This one works, especially in YA, because confusion is so prevalent. In a world filled with what ifs, even later in life, where is the assurance you will make the right choice? Without knowing more about either romantic interest, how can you pick the right one for you?

Losing a loved one to a car crash: I know this runs crazy in books, but is it really so horrible, when you consider that one of the top killers throughout the age groups is car accidents? They happen instantly, without warning. Seemingly innocent crashes kill people, while other horrible ones somehow has people walking away. They are unpredictable in scope and outcome. But the damage that remains is lasting. It’s something that everyone can relate to, something they understand. What good is a “unique” way to achieve the same effect, when it might not have the impact on readers?

The Reappearing Ex: Whether it’s the ex who suddenly shows back up or an old fling that didn’t mean anything, character’s pasts come back to haunt them often. And having it be something intimate is one of the most effective ways to not only twist the reader towards the character who is suddenly finding this out, but force that character to really face some hard things. As readers, we learn a lot about not only the character in question, but the romantic interest whose ex is suddenly back for more.

The cheating best friend and boyfriend: This one happens often, where the main character ends up finding out that their boy/girlfriend has kissed/slept with their best friend. The reason it’s so common? It’s painful, and it’s real. There is always that fear of losing your boy/girlfriend. And what hurts more than finding them with the one person you thought you could count on? This one challenges not only the relationship, but the friendship, both of which are important.

The “Chosen One” Concept: There are a lot of books, especially in the fantasy/paranormal section, where the main character is more special than everyone else. They are “The Chosen One.” But if someone besides the main character was the special one, why are we reading about the main character? A lot of the purpose of the book would be lost if we’re seeing it through someone else’s eyes. It’s a sidekick for a reason- because they are on the side, not the center.

Poor Girl/Rich Boy (or Poor Boy/Rich Girl): Basically, love between the social classes. But this has hints of forbidden romance to it, particularly when the families have a hard time with it. The differences in how the pair has grown up will influence their relationship, and the things they do also is affected by it. Not to mention, particularly on places where there is a clear difference between the classes, finding someone in a different class is new and exciting. It adds a new element for both the couple, and the reader.

Those are just some of the bigger ones that I’ve noticed. Maybe it seems repetitive, but how many o the books that had those same concepts did you still enjoy? When done well, they are just devices to keep things moving. They are something we understand, and something that doesn’t distract us from the actual purpose of it because the device is something new.


  1. those are all so true cliques and used over and over in books. so true

  2. Great list and food for thought.

    I know there are no new stories and all that, and that I fall into cliches in my own writing from time to time, but it is nice to at least put a new spin on an old cliche.

    The two that I notice a lot:

    1.The insecure and inexperienced female YA protag who's attractive to guys but somehow just doesn't know it (until the two hottest guys in town fall in love with her). Okay, I get the fantasy fulfillment factor here with the two guys, but it bothers me that part of why this is overdone is to keep the protags likable and sexually inexperienced.

    2.The children's, MG or YA protag with a dead parent or parents. I know this provides instant sympathy and conflict, and adds to the "chosen one" factor in fantasy and paranormal, but it occurs far more often in fiction than in real life.

  3. It really depends on the prowess of the author for me. I've read authors who can hide those cliches in wonderful stories and I'm not bothered by them at all (or sometimes they point them out blatantly, ex. Harry Potter, still a wonderful story in a rich world though)... then there are people like Robert Jordan, whose "Chosen One" cliche made me stop reading the fantasy genre for a long time, I was so disgusted by his over-use of it.

  4. I totally agree with you on this! I don't have a problem with these kinds of plot devices at all, for the reason that you mentioned: sure, these things don't happen all the time in real life, but they do *happen* ... and if they weren't happening to the MC, why on earth would we be reading his / her story! I'm happy reading what essentially amounts to the *same thing* in loads of books, because it's a different author's spin on it! I don't expect a completely unique-in-every-way story whenever I pick up a book, as long as it's unique in its OWN way ... there's a reason we have favourite genres - we *like* these plot devices ... readers sometimes seem to forget that! If someone wants something completely different, maybe they should try reading outside their genres, instead of complaining about it.

  5. This could very well be a list of my top favourite things that I love to read in a story. Every once in a while, especially if a story is not particularly well written, I will get annoyed with these cliches but for the most part I love them :)

  6. There's a saying that goes around in almost every creative writing class "there are no new stories, just new ways to tell them". It's kind of true - there are only so many human basic human experiences - loss, falling in love, growing up, overcoming hardship, etc. - there are just different ways to color those experiences. I can be frustrating to always read about the girl who lost her sister in a car crash or the rich white girl who falls in love with the poor latin boy, but when it's done well, it doesn't matter how many times you've read "that" story - it's still mind blowing.

    -excellent post