The 9 plot devices you must never use when writing a novel

Writing fiction is hard, but writing good fiction is harder. And if you want to write good fiction – stories that people like to read and find satisfying – there are some plot devices that are so hackneyed they must never be used again.

So even if you want to use one of these, and you were going to: don’t.

1. Amnesia. New rule: you can only use amnesia in a story if you personally know someone, or have heard recently about a person who has suffered from this disorder. Come to think of it I’ve never heard of a real case of amnesia. Was it made up just so it could be used in Matt Damon movies and soap operas?

2. Ditto with aspergers and autism. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was excellent, as was the touching autobiography Born on a Blue Day, so let’s just take it that this angle has been done as well as it can be, and give it up. Actually while we’re at it, can we throw tourettes syndrome in here too? You bet your sweet titties we can (see? Cheap laughs from a real disorder).

Anyway, on the subject of characters with aspergers or autism – I think we should admit it’s just an easy way of shoe-horning super-hero powers into the real world, via their supposed savant abilities. Which brings us to…

3. Teenager develops superpowers. Everyone knows you’re talking about puberty. Stop it. Oh and that whole teen-powers / puberty thematic bundle? It includes vampires, werewolves, and Harry Potter’s firm grip on his broomstick. Expelliarmis!

Yuk. Anyway: more plot devices that have been done to death:

4. Built over an Indian graveyard. As in The Shining, Poltergeist, and basically all North America horror.

5. The “this isn’t fiction – I found these letters / papers / videotapes and decided to publish them” device, which is a venerable technique that dates to possibly the first novel ever written, Pamela, by Samuel Richardson and has extended into modern films like Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project and could probably be put out to pasture, no?

6. Main character is a writer. So, so so so so sick of this. Dear writers, do us all a favour and drape the respectable cloth of literary obfuscation over your pathetic fantasies about what you’d like to happen in your dull life.

7. Secret societies. Aren’t a secret anymore, as we have the internet. Back of the class Mr Brown.

8. Premonition in a dream. Hackneyed, plain and simple.

9. And finally, bad thing happens to character who is too stupid to really understand it. Lenny from Of Mice and Men – go tug on someone else’s heart strings, you big dumb schmuck.

If you can avoid these more obvious traps, then chances are your novel will be straying into the shocking realms of originality.

Good luck!

2 comments

  1. I’ve met people with amnesia, short term, long term, middle term….. and people with autism….. havn’t met someone with amnesia and autism though, that could be a goer? Especially if she had superpowers….

  2. Immediately after reading this post, saw the Liam Neeson movie “Unknown”.

    It starts with bash to poor Liam’s head. Oh no. This is clearly going the stock standard “I’ve got amnesia and don’t know who am” route. But wait… he has a perfectly clear memory and its everyone else that doesn’t know who he is. Didn’t see that coming… how refreshing! BUT WAIT! There’s another twist… As a bad guy assasin, he had got confused and believed his own assasins cover, and IT REALLY WAS AMNESIA ALL ALONG! Double-plot-device-sucker-punch! (triple if you count pulling the “nice guy finding out he’s a bad guy” amnesia plot direct from Bourne Identity… sigh!

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