As writers, it’s our job to keep stories fresh and exciting.
Humans have been writing stories for thousands of years, so it’s inevitable that some story conventions get overused. yet many of us still struggle with ideas and wind up using clichés that ruin the experience for our readers (and therefore, get rejected by publishers or magazines to which you submit).
Here are some of the most used short story clichés and why authors should stop using them:
1. It was all a dream/game/hallucination.
Let’s start this list off with the one I hate the most. You can find this storytelling cliché everywhere: movies, TV, books, comics… It’s a cheap and underhanded way to make a reader fear for the protagonist without putting them in actual risk. The only way this would pay off is if the dream turns out to have very real repercussions (e.g. Ender’s Game).
2. Non-human point-of-view twists.
This is kinda related to the first story-writing cliché, except here the twist is in the narrative perspective. It’s not as cheap as the dream cliché, but you have to go the extra mile to ensure that the POV’s narration is:
- accurate to the character – how can a dog understand English, for example
- hidden from the reader – it is a twist, after all
- compelling to read
I thought we had gotten past that in these modern times. This tells me more about you as a person than it does about the story.
4. Evil human race.
Yes, we get it. The human race has effed up the planet so badly that animals don’t want to live with us, aliens don’t want to meet us, and our own children think adults are monsters. But I don’t like stereotypes (as I mentioned), and stereotyping humans in your story as evil isn’t any better than stereotyping a race.
5. “Little did he know.”
Way to kill the tension in your story, buddy.
You just removed the drama and surprise from any conflicts your main character would encounter. This is a short story, not a daytime soap opera.
6. Trophy references.
I’ve enjoyed many stories that reference pop culture or anything related to the story’s theme, but there’s a difference between adding it in because it’s cool and showing off. Don’t let these references interfere with the story’s plot and the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
7. Happily ever after.
I’m not opposed to happy endings, but I am opposed to ones that aren’t justified. It’s never as simple as waving a magic wand, or scolding a villain into changing the error of his ways.
Make your protagonist earn that happy ending.
8. “In the beginning…”
There are novels that can pull this off, but you’re not writing a novel, are you? You’re writing a short story, which has a tight word count.
Drop us in the middle of the story, in media res, and don’t waste time reinventing the universe.
9. “Woe is me.”
Readers love stories where characters are put in emotional conflict, but you have to be careful not to turn your conflicted protagonist into a whiny protagonist. The former is compelling and dramatic, but the latter is annoying and melodramatic. This is especially true of short stories where the character spends most of the word limit moaning about his situation rather than actually doing anything about it.
10. The glorified joke.
Humor in fiction can be a very tricky thing. Not only is humor subjective, but a lot of authors fall into the trap of putting a joke in at the expense of the story. Even more make the bigger mistake of making the joke the entire point of the story. The story becomes a thousand-word setup for a single punchline—which usually falls flat.
11. Author’s revenge.
Many of us have been through unfair situations: an overbearing boss, a bad relationship, bullies, etc. And though we fantasize about getting payback, we (as functional human beings) rarely act on it.
Writing short stories about getting even may be therapeutic, but nobody else is going to want to read it.
12. Weather reports.
If you’ve read fantasy novels, you probably know what I’m talking about. Cue opening scene on a mountain range, the onset of a storm, or the blistering desert. It’s picturesque, it’s a good writing exercise, and it has no place in a short story.
Space is at a premium, and you have no time to be talking about how fine the grains of sand are.
13. Pop culture knock-offs.
Do you have sparkly vampires in your story?
Plucky, bespectacled young wizards?
How about short, hairy Canadians with claws for hands?
It’s probably not for us, then. Influences are one thing, poorly-disguised fan fiction is another.
14. Aesop / Chicken Soup for the Soul stories.
It’s perfectly fine to have a central theme in your story, and try to express a worthwhile message. But beating your reader over the head with environmental activism, or religious conservatism, or any other sort of overt preaching does not make good fiction.
15. Artist with artist troubles.
I’m a writer. I get how agonizing the creative process is, and I don’t want to read about someone else going through the same thing. Only Neil Gaiman ever pulled this story off successfully, and he had trapped his muse in a dungeon in his basement.
Keep in mind there are always exceptions.
The reasons these have become clichés is because they’ve been done so many times and so poorly that now they’re just… lame.
But if you can put your own unique spin on it, in a way that’s new, fresh, and—above all—justified, then go ahead! Just be aware that there’s a much higher bar that you have to overcome.