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Avoiding Crime Fiction Clichés

Using clichés in writing is often considered to be lazy: from those familiar storylines we see rehashed to mind-numbing proportions, to common phrases repeated over and over again. Clichés act as crutches for writers to lean on when imagination falls short – but avoiding such clichés, or putting a unique spin on an otherwise common plot device, can subvert the reader’s expectations and keep a crime fiction novel fresh and exciting.

In honour of Creative Writing Week, The Writers’ Academy has taken a look at one the most common clichés found in crime fiction. While some may advise steering clear of clichés altogether, it is important to realise that they can still be exploited to positive effect.

One cliché frequently encountered in the crime genre is that of the protagonist with an unhealthy relationship with alcohol – for example, in stories featuring Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole, Ian Rankin’s DI Rebus and Stuart Kaminsky’s Lew Fonesca. It is easy to see why so many crime novelists resort to this when trying to create a flawed protagonist. Giving a supposed ‘do-gooder’ an addiction is an easy way to flesh out their character, making them more complex and showing their vulnerability. Despite being able to restore public order, the detective still does not have the power to restore private order; despite his superior intellect and deduction capabilities, the detective remains human – an imperfect being, in an imperfect world, just like the reader. His flaws help us empathise.

However, decades of labelling detectives as ‘alcoholics’ have diluted the impact this device has on the reader today. Addiction is frequently used to indicate a sense of conflict or internal struggle within a protagonist – but there are plenty of other methods that can be used to reveal the intricate layers of your character’s persona and express their inner turmoil. Think of all the different ways that people cope – or don’t cope – with their problems; think of how many of these methods don’t involve alcohol. Try to move away from the middle-of-the-road device that the alcohol cliché has become and find a different way to help the reader recognise the complexity of the human personality.

Having examined the reasons behind the use of this common cliché, hopefully you can see that the use of alcohol, while prevalent in the crime fiction genre, is not necessarily a device that will enhance your writing and make it stand out. The key is not to lift clichéd themes from crime fiction novels and rework them into your own writing: the more you can question ideas in consistent use – develop them, subvert them and make them your own – the fresher and more original your writing will be.


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