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The Dreaded Plot Cliché

With particular thanks to my friend, ghostposts, who posted the first of these links on her LJ page, I'd like to draw your attention to the following lists, from over at Strange Horizons.  They contain details of, shall we say, somewhat overemployed plotlines, which they'd prefer not to see in submissions.

Frankly, after reading through them both I feel violated.  It's like they raided my ideas folder and listed every plot I ever came up with
 However, in the interest of sharing (and to save anyone ever needing to read one of my stories), I'm posting the links here.

Strange Horizons:
Horror stories we've seen too often

Strange Horizons:  Stories we've seen too often

My only consolation is that my current WIP - about a housesitter, who goes up the creaky staircase to investigate strange growling noises coming from the attic during a dark, and stormy Hallows' Eve, armed only with a candle - doesn't get mentioned. 

How about you?  Are there any stories on your collection that you won't be submitting to Strange Horizons after all?

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( 40 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 1st, 2009 06:54 pm (UTC)
There's no point in worrying about it :-) Whatever you write, write it well and nobody will think they've seen it before.
Jul. 1st, 2009 06:56 pm (UTC)
Dang, I knew there'd be a catch ;)

Hey, I thought you were off somewhere till next week. Just can't tear yourself away, can you? :)
(no subject) - peadarog - Jul. 1st, 2009 06:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 1st, 2009 06:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 1st, 2009 07:00 pm (UTC)
I've always had a bit of an issue with STRANGE HORIZONS' "stuff we've seen too often" list. For every one of those plots, there's a brilliant classic that scared the bejesus out of me and a hack job that deserves to be a Sci Fi Original Movie. There are no original plots anymore; Aristotle outlined them all. Hell, THE SHINING is just a haunted house, right? ALIEN is about a critter laying an egg inside a human? PSYCHO is an abused child who became a serial killer?

Discounting these plots because they're too common rejects the idea that someone can find a new and interesting twist on it, that character-driven fiction can make the old new again. It's striving for something DIFFERENT instead of something well-written and engaging for the reader. The challenge is not to reject all the tropes of the genre, but to accept them and then twist them into something new.

There's a bit of literary snobbery to the idea that a new writer can't possibly take an old concept and run with it, that it solely belongs to the classics of yesterdyear. Peter Benchley screwed us all on sharks, true enough. But someday someone might find a way to make sharks scarier than JAWS. That would take someone more talented than me, but I would never say it's impossible.

But then, I have a lovely collection of rejection letters from STRANGE HORIZONS, so I should probably shut up.
Jul. 1st, 2009 07:03 pm (UTC)
Ooh, how about Sharks that can get you on land? No, wait, I think they did that in a sci-fi movie :(

I know what you mean. It's like Peadar says. It all comes down to the way you tell 'em. ;)
(no subject) - ajjones - Jul. 2nd, 2009 07:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 1st, 2009 07:12 pm (UTC)
Two ways to look at this. First, you can always twist an old idea to make it fresh. That, however, requires a truly fresh approach with some of these cliché plots. The second is not to write any of these in the first place, to be familiar with what's gone before when coming up with ideas. A lot of these are what's called "The Jar of Tang Story." Where the protag spends the entire story trudging across an orange desert surrounded by an impenetrable vitrine barrier. Which in the end is—surprise!—a jar of Tang. A lot of these are conceits not ideas that true human drama in a story can find much of anything to work with.

The above Jar of Tang example is from the Turkey City Lexicon if you haven't seen it. :-)


Edited at 2009-07-01 07:13 pm (UTC)
Jul. 1st, 2009 07:17 pm (UTC)
You mean the Jar of Tang idea's been done too? ;)
(no subject) - marshallpayne1 - Jul. 1st, 2009 07:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 1st, 2009 08:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marshallpayne1 - Jul. 1st, 2009 08:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 1st, 2009 07:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marshallpayne1 - Jul. 1st, 2009 07:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 1st, 2009 07:43 pm (UTC)
I agree. There are no new stories, so I'm not sure what purpose these lists serve. Though I do expect they provide some useful groundwork for new writers.

There are no new plots, as you say. There's only new ways to tell the same old story. The movie ET was just Old Yeller updated to a boy and his alien.

Finding different ways to tell the same old story. That's what writers have to look for, and I think the best of them do, and succeed.
Jul. 1st, 2009 08:01 pm (UTC)
I think it's helpful to know what's considered old hat. At least then you know in advance that you'll need to give that old hat an new lining, as it were ;)
Jul. 1st, 2009 07:54 pm (UTC)
I don't claim to be Completely Original (tm) but I've never written any of those plots, and SH still reject me with form rejections. it must be a conspiracy.
Jul. 1st, 2009 07:57 pm (UTC)
Oh, and yes, I am familiar with this list and often refer people to it. It's amazing how many times I came across 2e and especially 4a in my few beta-reading years.
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 1st, 2009 07:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 1st, 2009 07:58 pm (UTC)
I've been rejecting more than a few well-written stories because of very worn plots. Some markets are more open to them than others.
Jul. 1st, 2009 08:06 pm (UTC)
From an editor's POV, if three people come up with a similar story idea, even if it's not a cliche, I imagine it's hard not to feel biased towards choosing the 'original' one.
(no subject) - bondo_ba - Jul. 1st, 2009 08:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 1st, 2009 11:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 1st, 2009 08:33 pm (UTC)

I actually thought everyone had already seen this page. It does read like a who's who of the "great ideas" generated by "writers" who don't read enough, doesn't it?

I wouldn't hesitate to send SH one of these plots if I thought it was different enough to merit it. Every single idea in the universe has been done before. The problem is that the ones in the list are most likely to be subbed by the weird middle-aged guy who lives in his parent's basement next door and doesn't seem to understand that "no" does not mean "yes, but only if you call us about your submission".
Jul. 1st, 2009 11:29 pm (UTC)
I'm new to this writing short stories lark, so links like these, or the SFWA one that Marshall mentioned are interesting/useful/depressing to me :)
(no subject) - bondo_ba - Jul. 2nd, 2009 12:31 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 1st, 2009 10:04 pm (UTC)
I'd never seen those particular lists since I haven't submitted to them before, but have seen similar ones

I just started writing again and started submitting stuff at the end of last year...so thanks for that, but I need to actually write some more short stories to be able to submit. I do have a good excuse though, my novel is finished, second draft is finished... ;)

Edited at 2009-07-01 10:04 pm (UTC)
Jul. 1st, 2009 11:34 pm (UTC)
I enjoy writing short stories, but I must admit, I prefer novels. Glad to see you finished that second draft :)
Jul. 1st, 2009 10:30 pm (UTC)
I don't worry about lists like that. I just write the story I have at the moment and let the chips fall where they may.
Jul. 1st, 2009 11:35 pm (UTC)
I think you're quite right. At the end of the day, it's the characters that make or break a story :)
Jul. 1st, 2009 11:13 pm (UTC)
I basically agree with what reannon said. Also, there are many plotless stories nowadays, and I suppose it's inevitable considering everything is used up before us newcomers. SF writers could use new settings, and we do, which puts a new twist on a story. But . . . the truth is most publishers/editors don't want fresh ideas, creatures, and worlds. I've invented an entire new fantasy world based on super science, with animals, people, society, but I have yet to sell a story written in that world.
Jul. 1st, 2009 11:38 pm (UTC)
I've got two (and three quarter) first drafts of novels set in a medieval world where humans are just one of many species to have 'evolved'. From the outset though, I've tried to take the attitude that the story, not the setting is the attraction.

Of course, what I try to do and what actually happens aren't always the same thing ;)
Jul. 2nd, 2009 01:43 am (UTC)
Therapist enters into the thoughts of serial killer in prison, via telepathy or VR. [a.k.a. the Cell plot.] -- yeah, been there, done that :)
Jul. 2nd, 2009 10:25 am (UTC)
On the bright side, if they've already been done, they must have been good ideas :)
Jul. 2nd, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC)
Frankly, I've had far more luck placing stories with common/cliche plots than original ones. Seems to me execution is everything (plot is merely the frame you hang your prose on), and if you've got a truly original story you're in for a lot subbing until you find an editor willing to take a chance.

Most of the horror list seems to just be boring or complete, IHMO, though, so I think it solid advice to think twice before using any of those as a premises. On the other hand, most of those listed probably have generated millions upon millions for Hollywood so clearly they have appeal at some level.
Jul. 2nd, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC)
At the very least, I guess it's helpful to know which plots aren't considered original anymore.
(no subject) - bosleygravel - Jul. 3rd, 2009 05:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 3rd, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 6th, 2009 12:11 pm (UTC)
Hm. Interesting lists.

Personally, I think that anything on either list, done really well, could be a good read. Still, it doesn't hurt to have a feel for what might be considered overdone, I suppose.

(I'm surprised that I'm only guilty of Stories We've Seen #13. Whew. If I wrote horror, I'd probably be all over both lists like white on rice.)
Jul. 6th, 2009 12:16 pm (UTC)
I got the impression the person who wrote the lists was having a bad day and needed to vent :)
( 40 comments — Leave a comment )

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