Great books break these rules all the time. I’ll say it again: great books break these rules ALL THE TIME.
But here are ten cliches agents see so often in queries and samples, they make us go “ugh, not again.”
- Characters running hands through their hair. This move almost certainly springs from the era of Jonathan Taylor Thomas hair.
- Dead parents. It needs to be said, even though everyone does it, including me. But remember, grief is not a shortcut to character development.
- Redheaded best friends. Poor redheads, always relegated to the position of bestie. Also, why are best friends so often the fun one, while the hero is a stick in the mud? Yes, shyness is relatable, but it’s okay for your main character to be a firecracker, too.
- Alcoholic moms, especially ones that drink boxed wine. Like ‘Busy Dad’, ‘Drunk Mom’ has become a shorthand for suburban ennui and inattentive, embarrassing parenting. Unless your story is truly about substance abuse, try and find a fresh way to signal mom is less-than-perfect.
- Car accidents! If you’re a parent in YA, you’re probably drunk or dead. If you’re a boyfriend, you’re probably two pages away from a horrible car accident. If Kaydan has to go, why not have him get hit by a falling tree, or skateboard into a meat grinder? Get creative!
- Stories that open with characters moving to a new town. I’m not sure why this is such a common set-up, especially in YA and MG, but rather than kickstart the plot, this device can leave agents feeling like they’ve covering the same old territory. (Oops, slipped into “listicle” voice there. Sorry.)
- / being forced to spend the summer with grandparents / relatives / country bumpkins of any stripe. I think this one originated in romantic comedies, where the too-busy, too-snobby hero is brought down to earth by the love of a simple man. (There are actually quite a few great books that follow this trajectory, but again, agents see it too often.)
- Amnesia. In chapter one. A great story can explore a hero’s rediscovery of her past, and this plot device isn’t an instant turn-off to agents, but if you’re setting out on your first draft, this may not be the best place to start.
- “I bet you’re wondering how I got myself in this situation.” Direct-address to the reader pulls us out of the story and reminds us we’re being narrated to. I think this is something we’ve picked up from movies and t.v., but in novels we’re ALREADY being narrated to, and don’t need reminding. We want to be immersed in your story and identify with your hero, not hear her monologue.
- Heterochromia. This is one of many writer shortcuts for ‘there’s something different / special about her.’ For some reason it’s usually attributed to girls rather than guys, and sometimes suggest the supernatural. Speaking of which, this picture is creepy.
If you’ve already queried a sample with one or more of these elements, don’t panic. Agents look past this stuff to see what’s truly original about your work. BUT, while there’s nothing wrong with the above in an artistic sense, the best and most enticing writing feels fresh, so in the future, kill these darlings!
Are there any I missed? Add them in the comments!