The Trope Police

Hello, friends! How’s the writing going?

Every so often on Twitter I offer some Query Trends, which are multiple instances of oddly specific things I see in my queries. Lately I’ve been thinking of trends on a larger scale. Not just genre trends, which come and go and come back again seemingly at random, but rather writing trends that I officially see as cliche.

So, what am I seeing that I’d love to see go away (or, at the very least, become severely lessened)?

 

Teenage girls who are super into photography.

Putting aside that the majority of “photography” is being done on iPhones with Snapchat and Instagram filters, let’s talk about this very impractical and expensive hobby that every teenage girl (and some boys!), regardless of background or economic status, seem to have. And not just a vague interest in photography – a full-on I will buy this sophisticated camera with various lenses and walk around with them all the time obsession. I see this in YA most often, but I also see it in Adult fiction with teen characters and, more recently, in the TV show Casual and the movie, Boyhood.

I’ll repeat how expensive of a hobby this is. It’s really expensive. These characters aren’t settling for point-and-shoot digital cameras. They have some serious equipment and in a lot of cases, these are characters specified as decidedly not rich. How are they paying for all of this?

Expenses aside, this hobby often feels forced. Has the “wannabe writer” cliche played out so photography was next “artsy” career path in line? It feels only mildly realistic and for as many teens legitimately interested in technique, I would guess that far more take selfies with friends at parties and call it a day.

We get it; your main character sees the world through a unique lens. But unless they’re Veronica Mars, and photography also comes in handy in their secret side job, consider that you’re possibly using a cliche for no real reason.

 

Powerful women as a technicality (or gimmick).

Regardless of what happens in November, I hope Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will help make a trope I hate finally go awayand that is the Female Character Falling Ass Backwards Into Power. My literal examples are all TV-related:

  • Veep, Male president resigns, female VP rises
  • Commander In Chief, Male president dies, female VP rises
  • Battlestar Gallactica, Everyone in the line of succession dies, female Sec. of Education becomes president (and is amazing, of course, but still)

Seriously, did no one think a woman could just, ya know, get elected? All by herself. Can’t we have even a fictional world where the people chose a woman voluntarily and not because a male option was dead? (But I digress…)

In not-so-literal examples, some trends I’ve noticed in submissions are:

  • Female athlete who learned everything from her dad, who may or may not be the coach of her team too.
  • Battle of the Sexes science fairs or class president elections.
  • Propelled into the plot because of a missing father.
  • Propelled into the plot because her father is the doctor/detective/scientist directly involved in the story.

In each of these stories, the girl is in the shadow of a more powerful man, and then – and only then – can she find her inner strength. It takes an “anything you can do, I can do better” approach to feminism that feels outdated.

I’d love to see a female athlete who trains with her Olympic medal winning mother. Or a lawyer (or future lawyer) who was inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Where’s my teenage Leslie Knope? Where’s my Katniss as an adult? Give me someone who isn’t just propelled into the plot, but drives the plot.

 

The “wild” best friend.

If Writer-Sarah may admit something up front – I’ve totally written the wild best friend story. Most of us who grew up to become writers probably had the wild best friend. I actually love the wild best friend. From Rayanne Graff in My So-Called Life to Lila in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The complexities of friendship, in general, are always interesting to me. That said…

I’ve been noticing two different types, in published books and in even more manuscripts, usually dependent on gender:

  • Girls/Women: The friend who lives without fear of consequence. She says what she’s thinking, she flirts, she’s reckless, and she’s probably a little damaged. She pushes the main character to live life to the fullest and go beyond her comfort zone.
  • Boys/Men: The horndog. The slacker. He makes sexist comments, he gets high, he thinks the main character just needs to relax. He’s the id to the main character’s ego.

Both are cautionary tales. Both serve as windows and mirrors for the main character.

So if I love these types of stories so much, why am I sick of them?

Because they’re all starting to sound the same. In YA, it’s the best friend pulling the main character into a plot, teaching them things about life. In Adult, it’s the best friend who remains so in-name-only even though it’s obvious the main character outgrew them. They become a symbol for The Road Not Taken as opposed to being actual people.

Why else am I sick of these friends?

Because I am SO ready for the “wild best friend” to be our main character! They are clearly the more interesting friend. They deserve more than teaching the main character a valuable lesson, or making the main character feel better about their “boring” life. They deserve to have their own story told.

***

I’ve said before (here) that it’s OK if you’re not completely original. Premises are always going to sound similar; it’s how you interpret them and make them your own that counts. So, sure, a few tropes might slip in and no one will care if the rest of the book is amazing and unique. Cliches aren’t the worst thing in the world, but for a debut author they can be the difference between an offer and a rejection.

 

(OK, if the only thing holding me back in a manuscript is an overused character trope, I’ll probably opt for having a conversation with the author or asking for an R&R.)

 

Keep writing, friends! When your photography-loving main character goes to search for her missing photojournalist dad and takes her wild best friend with her, remember we’re still rooting for you! But maybe just tone it down a bit. 🙂

The Obvious Symbolism Police

Yesterday via Twitter, I wrote (probably with more snark than necessary): “Your daily writing tip from the Obvious Symbolism police: Avoid beginning your novel with your MC waking up. Even if they wake up a vampire.”

This got me thinking of other cases of the obvious or cliche that I see more often than I’d like. Back in January, I offered a list of specific phrases to avoid, which I still stand by 100%; this Top 5 list is more like my Obvious Symbolism complaint. Apologies in advance for sounding like a snooty liberal arts writing professor, but you’ll thank me later.

1) Waking up in the first sentence. As I already mentioned in my above tweet, this is a weak way to start your narrative. We don’t need to see how “ordinary so-and-so’s day was” when suddenly something out of the ordinary happens that sets the whole novel in motion. What we do need to see is the thing that actually happens, and we’ll know through your superior skills of developing and building a character that it’s out of the ordinary. That said, creating a nice scene that evokes the setting we’re entering, which may or may not lead to a character waking up, is acceptable as far as the O.S. Police is concerned.

2) Water = New Beginning. Baptism, rebirth, cleansing, etc. Water is literally used in these acts; therefore, water is usually used when a character is metaphorically reborn. Sure, Don Draper swimming in a pool when he decides to write his Jerry Maguire-esque letter to the editor is a nice image. Likewise, a threatening storm, a peaceful rain, or a dramatic gaze at a waterfall can all be beautifully written. Unfortunately, the symbols water represents are overdone and often transparent.

3) Colors. Specifically, I’m referring to black and white. Using black to symbolize death, danger, or something evil vs. using white to symbolize purity, hope, or “good” are pretty standard. Ask yourself if your story has to follow those standards. Other colors used as themes are gray (bleakness, blandness), yellow (both cowardly and bright, happy); blue (tranquility); or red (passion, scandal, love). There is nothing inherently wrong with using colors, but use them sparingly.

4) Ask not for whom the bell tolls. No one cares anyway. When a character’s days are numbered or their path to redemption is suddenly made clear, writers will often add a physical symbol (bell ringing in the distance, a song plays on the radio, etc. It’s safe to say that a person’s self-discovery and/or demise is not brought on by one thing. In theory, your entire novel should have been leading up to this moment. No gimmicks necessary, unless said gimmick has been a major part of the narrative the entire time.
5) It’s a bird; it’s a plane; it’s… cliche! Sorry J-Franz, but taking flight, or being obsessed with things that do, is a wee bit overused when portraying characters who are discontent and just want to escape. Or, to put it more literally, to fly away. This logic also applies to obsessions with the ocean, boats, or other methods of transportation that move through something vast and symbolic.

As with everything, there are always exceptions to all of these rules. The above-mentioned Mr. Franzen is proof of that. But, like with all exceptions to rules, it’s better to assume you won’t be one of them when you query an agent. (Sorry, but it’s true.) Once you get taken on, sell your first novel, and establish a career, then you’re safer to play around with the “rules.” But until then, the Obvious Symbolism Police will be watching.

Things to Avoid

In the late ’90s and early ’00s, I noticed that the use of the rhyme “faded” and “jaded” appeared all-too-frequently in song lyrics and it made me want to scream. While (I hope) you don’t resort to rhyming in your prose works-in-progress, there are several words, phrases, and devices that show up in literature that I beg you to steer clear of. (Ending a sentence with a preposition is NOT one of them.)

1) Doing anything “with a start.” This phrase is most commonly used when a character wakes up. Has anyone ever used this phrase in real life? If it’s not said in life, it should not be said on the page.

2) “Ravenous.” In general, I’m a fan of this word. It always implies intense hunger, lust, or both (!). But, I see it so often in all genres of literature that it’s beginning to lose its impact. The thesaurus is your friend, which is how I assume the use of this word came about in the first place, and now it’s time to find a new “original” and amplified way to say hungry.

3) Describing silence as “deafening.” It’s not.

4) Wearing Cutoffs. Part of the reason why Tobias’ cutoffs on Arrested Development were so funny is because cutoffs in general are ridiculous and haven’t been worn since the days of Wham. Yet, more authors than you would think often describe their characters wearing cutoffs.  No gender, race, socioeconomic status, etc. are spared. Sorry, but unless your M.C. is attending a Village People reunion concert, painting a house in 90 degree heat, or is a never-nude, cutoffs are just not acceptable.

5) Prologues. This might be a personal preference, but I think using this device to tell your story should be abolished from literature. 99% of prologues can be turned into the first chapter and the other 1% can be revealed throughout the work in flashbacks, background info, character building, etc.

6) Pillow-fight fantasies. This is for the men out there who are attempting to write in the voices of women. Very rarely do I find a male author writing from a female POV who doesn’t make their M.C. get her period, masturbate, or look at herself naked somehow. Fellas, really? Do you think we all sit around drinking cosmos while talking about shoes and multiple orgasms too?

7) “Needless to say…” I attribute my dislike of this phrase to a former journalism professor who simply said, “If you don’t need to say something, then just don’t say it.” I completely agree.

Feel free to add to this list. I’m sure there are many more cliches and pet peeves to know and avoid.