A List of Plots, Storylines, Techniques and Situations we Often See Overused or Poorly Executed
We recently received a request on Twitter to post plots and storylines that we see too frequently in our submissions queue. So we rounded up opinions from our best readers and editors. These plots and plot devices often make us yawn, wince, and occasionally scream in anger. But we want to be clear: we think no subject is off the table. The trouble with the things on this list is they need a unique perspective, and a clear intention. We’re happy to read your work about anything, but here are some common pitfalls…
1) A complicated point of view. It’s hard to write from the POV of a child well, and we see that done poorly lots. We also see the use of the second person for no apparent reason (or just for the sake of it). Using “you” doesn’t make a boring story not-boring. Another problem is using an omniscient or unsteady POV without care or intention: it’s hard to give more than one POV its due in a short story. If you’re going to try it, make sure all of the voices are necessary to the story you want to tell.
2) Stories about bad relationships are a dime a dozen around here, which makes sense given the fact that horrific relationships are a universal aspect of humanity (gulp). What we typically see is an individual in an unhappy marriage or relationship because he or she either gets cheated on, abused, and/or neglected. Often the characters talk about how sad this is, over dinner, their fingers playing delicately or angrily with the stem of their wine glasses.
3) The mid-life crises also makes up a big part of our rejections. These stories usually involve a middle-aged male regretting an extra-marital affair or missing his wife. A lot of times he’s sitting at a bar. He says to the bartender, “I’ve made a mistake that I now regret. Don’t ever do what I did or you’ll end up hating your life like I do right now. On this bar stool.”
4) It’s hard to write a story about art or writing without making it seem overly self-conscious, like navel-gazing or like a failure or imagination. Many writers choose the struggling artist as their protagonist. Writers writing about writing or writing classes or writing workshops or writer's block get submitted a lot. Does this sentence annoy you? You see what we mean.
5) Writing from the perspective of someone with a psychological disorder is hard. This isn’t necessarily overused or uninteresting – in fact, it has a lot of potential, but writers seem to think it’s more original than it really is. We see a lot of stories that incorporate people who have autistic-like symptoms and/or think in ambiguous images. Sure, we love people with unconventional ways of viewing the world. But if the narration is so disjointed that we can’t make sense of the story, you lose us. You know how your drug trip or last night’s dream is only interesting to you? Ditto here. We need some context for the "crazy," some guiding logic or narrative to keep us invested.
6) We do love and encourage inventiveness and experimentation, but experimentation for the sake of experimentation is problematic. There still has to be character, and there still has to be story, and the formal elements better be necessary and navigated with care. Please do not send your character to heaven or hell. We get it, it’s hot down there and the devil is really mean and/or surprising witty! Your character might wake up to find he’s a tree/bird/dinosaur, but these unique situations are not inherently interesting. We promise. Neither are footnotes. Really. We get it: footnotes used to only be in academic papers! But we’ve all read DFW. The word on footnotes in fiction is out. Again, we're not against these things, but they need to earn their place; they can't be replacements for plot or character development.
7) Stories with awesomely bad gratuitous sex scenes – on second thought, keep them coming.
8) Unfortunately for you M. Night Shyamalan fans out there (if those even exist anymore), we don’t much care for the shocking ending or the curveball. Finding out that the protagonist is crazy or having the protagonist kill herself or reveal her homosexuality at the end are plot cop-outs. We’d rather explore the significance of a character situation than have you withhold the simple fact of it. A story should renew our attention constantly. That doesn't mean we want something happening all the time, but we do want the most important detail(s) of the story to be dealt with throughout and not just at the end.
9) We also tend to get a lot of stories about young adults drinking, partying, and/or doing drugs. The extent of the narrative arc usually involves someone doing something stupid when he or she is intoxicated and then regretting it later. It’s just a little too obvious. Do we need to expound on this one? To put it bluntly, even if that keg stand you did was really awesome, we’re not all that interested in what you did last weekend.
10) Finally, we have sob stories (yes that sounds cold, but hear us out). These stories usually involve a loved one with a terminal illness or a drug abuse problem. Yes, these situations are hard, but they’re also at this point fairly familiar. We know these situations are difficult and sad. If a story simply reinforces how sad and difficult they are, we’re in standard territory. Sorry. We feel mean about this one, but it’s true.
These kinds of plots are overworked for a reason. They generally represent our common fears, experiences, or desires. But any story can be fresh and interesting with the right angle and the right storyteller. There have been a lot of stories published. It’s the writer’s job to tell the familiar in a new/unique/unprecedented way, not to rehash things we’ve seen before or tread familiar ground. That’s really hard, we know that. But we also know it’s possible to surprise, astonish and amaze us. Our admiration is at the ready. Get writing!
Thanks to Aaron, Brian, Karen, Todd, Lauren, Rutger, Anita, Christian, Chris, and Beth for their contributions to this list.
Note: Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern has a great list, "What Not to Do," that might also be of interest.