By Brady Major
Clichés. They’re the writing equivalent of that monster your parents promise lives under your bed, all in retaliation for your inability to recognize that bedtime means bedtime. But enough about my childhood, we’re talking mystery writing here.
The math is simple, folks: a cornucopia of clichés equals the product of tired, fat
unoriginality in this grand literary equation of ours. You want your writing to feel as fresh as veggies in the produce aisle at your local grocery store, and you do that by making the genre your own using the conventions that set those kinds of stories apart in interesting ways.
These conventions are your utensils, your genre’s defining elements that make your work stand out when used well and with finesse. And of course, it must be said that although conventions are the common parts of genres that pop up again and again in the work of everyone working inside that niche, they are not clichés. Conventions like the detective, the sidekick, and the riddle are the blueprints, the puzzle pieces, the crucial elements of your genre, while clichés are instances where those same conventions are spun in the same specific way ad infinitum until all originality is dried up.
Brave knight-or knightess-of the literary order, it’s imperative to slay the dragon Cliché that guards our great damsel, Madam Originality, in the castle afar. In newer English, save PETA the trouble of throwing red paint at you and quit beating dead horses! Be original, be fresh, be innovative. In that spirit, here’s some clichés to avoid while traveling down that well-worn road.
#1 A Woman Scorned
Any man can tell you how cruel women can be, but this idea has turned stale inside the confines of the mystery genre. DISCLAIMER: To stop every woman reading this from sharpening a pitchfork and marching towards my door, I feel obligated to inform you that the bolded statement was intended as a joke. Mostly.
Femme fatales are familiar to everyone: they’re women with enough power, sass and independence to kiss you on the cheek one second and brain you with their bedazzled purses the next. They’re the characters who spawned the age-old question,“Why are the pretty ones always so evil?”
It’s a common tool for mystery writers to introduce the conventional cynical male lead detective to a woman who is dangerous in all the right ways and alluring in her sin. Through rather formulaic means, the two fall in and out of attraction, all leading up to the moment where the woman is unveiled as the brains behind everything the detective has been working to stop the entire time. This element has been a mainstay since detective novels first sparked reader interest, and only gained more steam in the days of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
This isn’t to say that femme fatales are off limits, of course. By all means, welcome a Katharine Hepburn-esque maverick in a hot red dress into your story, a cigarette hanging precariously off her ruby lips, but please do us all a favor and make her an ally to your protagonist instead of his ultimate undoing. At the end of the day, this will also teach a portion of your prepubescent readers that not all women are evil when they have to attend school dances in their lonesome, or worse, with their mothers.
Because this age-old cliché is largely specific to malecentric detective stories written by male authors, it hasn’t become a common trope for a female detective to fall in love with a male figure of mystery who is later revealed to be the big deceiver near the conclusion. Using this angle, referred to as a homme fatale in some circles of the internet, the emphasis placed on the uber-sexualized image of a woman sauntering through a private detective’s office in traditional mystery stories would have to be switched and manipulated to fit the profile of a more masculine, dominant image. Because femme fatales exude command and are seen as the alphas of their gender, homme fatales should also adopt that position to be most effective. There are many ways to then use them.
For example, perhaps the homme fatale makes his introduction by helping the lady detective out in a fight, joining her as they crack heads together when an investigation goes south in a rundown dive bar? Because the idea of a homme fatale is so unprecedented and not even recognized as a distinct convention in the mystery genre, you may actually surprise your readers more by revealing the man to be the evildoer at the end of your story rather than keeping him all straight and narrow. However, if you start a fire and this thing becomes a new cliché for the genre, I will disown you and state openly in court that I was not the one who gave you the idea. So there.
#2 It Was All Part of the Plan
It’s a familiar image in our brains nowadays: the villain, seemingly caught with his hands behind his back, is defeated and taken into custody by the protagonist. We get triumphant descriptions of the detective, spy, or superhero rejoicing in his brilliance and unmatched ingenuity that quickly begins to border on “pompous dick” territory. Of course, what he doesn’t know is that all this time the villain wanted to be captured so that he could make the hero meet his ends in a very show-offy fashion, whatever they may happen to be.
The problem with this is simple: by creating a villain so audacious that he’s willing to walk right into the arms of the hero as he’s led to the slammer, you set off a domino effect of events that can only increase in disappointment and implausibility from then on. For your villain, now behind bars, to still act out his plans, he’s got to be absolutely positive that 1) no cops are going to take it upon themselves to shoot him dead and cry self-defense at trial, 2) his escape plan is fool-proof and any outside co-conspirators are skilled enough to do their jobs while he’s incapacitated, and 3) the police department hasn’t decided on the day of his capture to increase the building’s security defenses by a whopping 60%.
While writers fully intend to give their audiences a strong, powerful antagonist when they play this particular trump card, what results instead is an all-knowing, all-boring villain whose genius comes off less as cleverness and more like lazy writing. This is because the only way the baddie would be able to do the things they do is if they were God, and as far as I know, Morgan Freeman just isn’t the kind of man to unleash violent havoc upon a populace.
#3 Sacrificial Lambs
While you may feel the temptation as a writer to axe off a character your protagonist has created a strong bond with in an effort to make readers weep, take your hands away from that damn keyboard and listen to me very carefully when I tell you that there are better ways to shake the foundations.
Let’s put it on front street: it’s far too common for the love interest of the hero to take one for the team at the end of the story. By doing this, you leave your protagonist posing existential questions about the nature of love and happy endings to herself in a very mopey fashion, all while her lover bleeds out in her arms. BORING ALERT. Now, do these endings still pack a punch despite how clichéd they are? Sure, but you can keep the loved ones alive and traumatize your heroes even more. Shocking, right? Now pick your jaw up off the floor and take notes.
Instead of dying in a hail of bullets, what if your detective’s bedmate is assaulted on orders of the villain in a dark, dank alleyway, only to survive it all with a fractured memory? Before you know it she’s beaten blue and purple, lying in a hospital bed, a tube stuck down her throat. Your hero is clasping her hand with the tightest grip he can manage at her side, but she doesn’t even recognize the bastard. Hurts, doesn’t it?
#4 The Big Reveal
Anyone familiar with more traditional mysteries dating from over a century ago will be aware of the classic story structure involving a corpse, a scattering of clues, a few suspects, and the one detective tasked with finding the truth behind it all, culminating in a moment where she brings the cast of characters together to explain for ten pages how it all went down.
Thankfully this approach to mystery writing has fallen by the wayside in quite an impressive fashion since, but you still see signs of it in writers hoping to ape that familiar format. The main issue with this approach is how static it feels to your reader. When writing your mystery, one of your greatest obligations is to keep your characters on the move and in pursuit of clues that advance the story in a compelling way. The longer your keep them stagnant with no dynamic action developing around them, the more you lose your audiences’ interest.
While story conclusions involving a detective unraveling the case for other characters around them are often much more interesting on the screen than they are on the page, they are not free of tedium. Even watching the great David Suchet with his pointy mustache acting in the role of Hercule Poirot can test one’s patience as the sleuth extensively confirms for a mansion full of royalty that the killer was in fact the butler in the greenhouse with the hoe (I mean the gardening tool, you pervert).
It serves you far better to let the mystery unravel for the detective and reader in tandem. Let your audience know what she knows, and in some cases, don’t be afraid to share with them things she is ignorant of. Pace your mystery so that little by little the greater picture is formed over time instead of throwing the whole frame at readers during the last few pages. Saving all your revelations for the ending alone is burdensome and quite unsatisfying, because by doing so you’re not exactly welcoming readers to play the game along with your detective.
By pacing the story more naturally over time, you keep your detective on her feet as she continually chases after pressing clues. Ultimately, this will also spare your readers a denouement they wish they could fast forward through.
What say you, readers? Feel free to name the clichés that most annoy you in your favorite genre in the comments section below.