Finding a diary
Diaries are exceptionally convenient ways to serve up an info-dump. These super-McGuffins short-cut tedious detective work. They lay bare the secrets and souls of characters at the flick of a page. Diaries are all too easily found and instantly fill in the motivations and missing pieces of the plot. Who commits all these secrets to a diary anyway? And why do hand-written diaries still appear as McGuffins in a digital age?
An unexpected pregnancy/secret child/secret parent
“Luke, I am your father.”
“Leia is your sister.”
Estella is the daughter of Magwitch in Great Expectations (spoiler alert! Too soon?)
Agatha Christie delivers the secret love child as suspect/motive/murderer all too often.
Usefully in this Big Secret or Big Reveal, there’s love, loss, greed, jealousy and revenge conveniently bound up in that shared DNA.
The Detective revealing information
Indiscreet detectives discussing cases with all-and-sundry provide another painless info-dump. They frequently blabber highly confidential details about ongoing investigations with civilians. It’s entirely inappropriate and serious enough to get them fired in the real world. It doesn’t happen. Unless the detective is using information as a trap, or to bait a suspect. Case details are never shared with civilians and amateur sleuths. Unless the cop is corrupt. Or inept, as in a current high-profile case in the UK. Heads will roll. This is why they don’t do it.
A Surprise Twin
Even Steven Moffat trashes this one in Sherlock; “Watson, it’s never twins.” Although, incidentally, the premise of that holiday special episode is another plot cliché: ‘it was all a dream.’
Using twins as a device isn’t automatically bad. Shakespeare uses it in Twelfth Night and A Comedy of Errors, creating a template for comic mistaken-identity plots. The Parent Trap builds the drama from it, knowingly, from the start.
But the ‘surprise twin?’
It can’t possibly be our deceased/chief suspect/missing person/person in two places at the same time, can it?
Yes it can. It’s twins.
A Simple Favor crashes and burns in flames because ‘it’s twins.’
‘Separated at birth’ only deepens the cliché. See also ‘twins: one good, one evil.’
Clones also count as twins.
Amnesia stories provide a way of manufacturing suspense, creating mystery and delaying information. Temporary amnesia props up so many plots, it’s a wonder any of us can remember our own names. Countless head trauma’s and drug induced memory-wipes, all with no long-lasting damage. Except amnesia doesn’t work that way. Memento is the ONLY exception, based on real science in the tragic aftermath of an horrific injury.
Special Bonus Cliché: ‘it was all a dream’
I’ll add this one to the list; a clichés so venerable it appears in Greek and Roman stories, Lewis Caroll, Frank Oz and an entire season of Dallas.
We know we’re reading fiction, but somehow, authors, we resent the time we spent reading your trash when you reveal ‘it was all a dream.’ That’s what you write in Grade School. Stop it.
Clichés or Tropes?
These aren’t tropes, inherent in any genre; no one tells writers to use them. These are cast-iron clichés born out of lazy writing. They undermine and undercut any serious story the minute they surface; and once the damage is done, there’s no going back.
But, you argue, there are tropes demanded by certain genres; the orphaned hero, the love triangle, the child genius, the missing father/mother/brother/sister; the Chosen One, the Dark Lord.
Just because they are common, that doesn’t lessen the cliché. These can topple the most accomplished of prose masters with one sentence.
With that warning I’m off to query literary agents with my latest pitch for a novel:
“An orphaned Chosen One with amnesia becomes the Dark Lord. Then, their long-lost, secret parent’s diary documents a long-forgotten investigation. It reveals their identity as the rightful heir to the kingdom, being the eldest of twins separated at birth…”