The Cliché Detector

Ishikawa Ken (CC/Flickr)

Now we have a basic framework for the story, standing on the three legs of the story tripod. Before going any further, we need to engage the cliché detector. This is a piece of mental equipment that’s extremely valuable to a writer, and one we’ll need to consult at several stages of story development.

Whether we read books, watch films or television or just spend too much time on Facebook, we’ve all been exposed to certain cultural tropes. Some we’re aware of, and probably irritated by. Why do so many films involve characters who leave it too late to call the police? Why does the bad guy always shoot first and miss while the good guy always shoots second and hits? Why do so many films have a male hero and a female sidekick who looks pretty and does nothing? Why can’t politicians (here in the UK at least) string three sentences together without saying ‘hard working families’? Everybody has their own list.

More pernicious are the tropes we’ve absorbed and not noticed, because they spill into the gaps in our thinking when we’re not looking. They disguise themselves as our own original ideas as they make a story look derivative to everyone but the writer. The role of the cliché detector is to catch them as early as possible. I use mine to look at each idea and honestly ask myself where it came from and whether it’s something I inadvertently copied from somewhere else. I don’t mean it has to be a completely original idea. I mentioned in the previous post that my character of Le Méridien, who appears in Steel in the Morning and Newgate Jig, was based on the historical figure of Joseph Boulogne. I’ve never seen another character quite like him in fiction, so he passed the cliché test. The problem I gave him to solve in Steel in the Morning was swiped from the plight of one of the characters in Pride and Prejudice but I’d be very surprised if anyone made the link. If you’re going to steal, cover your tracks.


Charlie Peverett (CC/Flickr)

Use the cliché detector to take an honest look at each leg of the story tripod and ask yourself where it came from, and whether it’s something you’ve seen before. It helps that a few publications list what they see too much of. The most definitive list I know of is at Strange Horizons, and the contents of the list are the sort of thing that will be in here at this stage if they’re in there at all. Now is a good time to look at it, before you get any more invested in the story. If any of tripod legs appears on that page, it’s not too late to swap it for another one.

When you’re as confident as you can be that you haven’t introduced any clichés, put the detector away and we’ll move on. Remember where you put it. You’ll need it again soon.

Before moving on, it’s worth taking twenty minutes to listen to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of one of my favourite novels, Half of a Yellow Sun, has to say on the subject of the Perils of a Single Story:

This is an author with a very well calibrated cliché detector.


Go back to the three story tripods you made in response to the previous post. Look at each of the nine legs and ask yourself where the idea came from. Then ask yourself if you’ve seen that idea before, and where. If you can’t think of anywhere, give it a green light. If it’s so far out of that context that it’s unrecognisable, give it a green light.

If you’ve seen two ideas on the same tripod together before, or recognise one of the ideas as something you’ve inadvertently copied from somewhere, let the red light flash and the siren howl. Then switch it off and adjust the ideas until you get a green light.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Story development, Writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Cockburn's Eclectics on

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 453 other followers

%d bloggers like this: