Mystery Cliches: Are They Boring Your Readers?

By Elaine Viets

Are you writing cliches? Of course you are. We all do. Call them cliches or give them a Hollywood make over and claim they’re literary tropes, certain scenes and characters appear again and again in the mystery genre. We writers need to be aware of them. Masterful writers can turn tired scenarios into art. But in lesser hands, those same cliches can annoy readers. Here are a few cliches that real, book-buying readers have identified.

Cozies– The heroine looks at her body in the mirror and describes herself. This has been done again and again.

– The stupid detective who makes major errors no police officer would. Cozy heroines often need a reason to investigate the crime, and a stupid detective is the standard one. But I threw a book against the wall when a cozy heroine went back to the victim’s home and found her diary SITTING ON THE DESK IN HER OFFICE in plain sight and it just happened to have a major clue. Any police officer with a pulse would have taken that diary!

– The protagonist who is Too Stupid to Live and confronts the killer alone. I’ve seen this in all genres – even noir, where cops who should know better confront the killer without calling backup – but it happens more often in cozies.

– I used to pick up every “cupcake bakery mystery” and “knitting circle sleuth” book, but I found that they all opened with a description of the new woman driving into town thinking about how she just broke up with her fiancé, just sold her house, just quit her job, or just inherited the family shop, and how she’s starting over, yadda yadda.

– In one series, the writer starts every book with a scene of waking-up, feed-the-cat, think about what we do for a living, and the people we deal with as we shower. Every time we encounter a character we hear again the same basic spiel that was in book one about the back story of the character or location. We even have to hear about people’s nicknames and why they have them. This gets extremely tiring and I have to skip past it by books two and three.

Thrillers


– I’m tired of books that are always about lost artifacts that good guys race against bad guys to find. Too much detail and a predictable story line.

– This thriller was told in present tense, but then shifted between different time periods and different points of view. I couldn’t keep it all straight and jumped to the end. I don’t want to work that hard to stick with a book.

– Story jumped from city to city to city. The author didn’t set the scenes, just changed the place and dateline at the start of the chapter. I lost interest trying to figure out where it was.

– Ordinary minivan dads and moms suddenly develop SEAL-level skills to save their spouses and/or children. I know parents can perform extraordinary deeds to save their family, like lift up a car to save the baby from being crushed to death, but gimme a break! Or give them a background where they’ve been in the military or have some kind of special training.

– The nice guy hero with the psychopath friend who does all the killing and dirty deeds the good guy won’t do.

– My pet peeve is cardboard characters. Any mystery can have stock characters, but I think they’re especially common in thrillers, where character development is too often sacrificed for action. It’s a turn-off.

Chick lit

– Look, I know it’s a genre – chick lit mysteries – but I don’t always know I am downloading one until I listen to the setup (someone croaks or is croaked) and when the police come, the female protag suddenly notices how tight the sheriff’s shirt is over his manly pecs, and we are off! I have had several opportunities to call the police and never did I start sniffing their aftershave and swooning. Seems like every book with people of both genders in it, two opposite ones (usually) will immediately glom onto each other. Dunno – it’s kind of funny and kind of stupid.

– Don’t know about cops, but it has become apparent to me over the years that all firemen, no matter where they live, have to pass some sort of hunk test before they’re hired. The pizza delivery person has never been hot and interested in me nor has any auto mechanic ever offered special services. Very depressing.

– The heroine has a sidekick friend who is either old, fat, or weird, wears wild clothes and behaves outrageously.

– I’d like a mystery where the characters are not over-the-top having sex with the detective and the ex and so forth, and they have to work to make a living.

Noir
– The protagonist’s wife/husband and child were killed in a car accident or a plane crash and the protag crawled into a bottle. Yes, I know that happens sometimes, but it happens so much in the mystery world I’d be afraid to let any family members board a plane or even drive to church.

– The hero is beaten unconscious in one chapter – kicked, pounded, bloody, broken nose and maybe other bones – and in the next is running around chasing the bad guy, without any damage.

So readers, what cliches turn you off?

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43 thoughts on “Mystery Cliches: Are They Boring Your Readers?

  1. Cozies

    The “Jewish mother” character: The first time the mother of the female protagonist meets the attractive cop or detective, she asks him if he’s married. The answer is always “no,” so she tells him her daughter (who is standing right there) is unmarried, divorced, or widowed.

    The bimbo blond murder suspect: She is the wife or girlfriend of the victim, whom she had stolen away from the protagonist. Usually, she did not commit the murder.

    Cozies and Police Detective

    The undercover protagonist who successfully adopts a skilled profession completely unfamiliar to her or him: In one bestselling mystery I read, a detective replaces a dead PhD candidate, (who nobody knows is dead, yet). She slips into the victim’s teaching assignment at the university, interacts with other academics, and meets with her dissertation adviser, for several weeks. She solves the case without ever being outed as a fake academic.

    Noir
    The prostitute with a heart of gold and a good reason for having chosen her profession: She’s either the first murder victim, or ends up dead later. Her death makes the hardboiled male protagonist sad.

  2. Love this post! Sherlock-type brilliant and infallible detectives are really stale to me now. And since Gone Girl there are far too many copycat revengeful female protagonists on overkill, literally.

  3. You’ve hit most of my buttons–at least the ones I can find before I’ve finished my first cup of coffee. The mirror descriptions, or characters who use “self-description” like, “I pulled my long blonde hair into a ponytail.” Or, “My floral chiffon skirt swirled in the breeze.” (I’m a Deep POV person and who actually thinks like that?)

    Cozies I’ve read recently seem to make sure they introduce every character in the first couple of chapters, and the “tour through the town” showing who works where, how they started their business, and … real pet peeve … recap the previous crimes makes me stop reading.

    I, too, never remember setting based on chapter headings. They don’t register as “story.”(I skipped over them in college textbooks, too.)

    I will accept that police detectives never have to work on more than one crime at a time, because it’s fiction and ‘real life’ would be boring, but why are the supervisors always self-centered idiots who try to keep the detective from doing his/her job?

    And the FBI does NOT come in and steal cases.

  4. I’ve noticed a sameness lately to many of the cop/PI protagonist mysteries/thrillers I read: middle-aged male, out of shape, loads of failed professional and personal relationships, alcoholic or recovering, messy apartment, sharp-tongued, procrastinator, tonsorial disaster, basically unlikable. Then, I agree with some of the other comments, this same hero suddenly rises as a Phoenix with special op skills and fitness without adequate or believable explanation.

    It’s essential to have a flawed, human protagonist, but the flaws seem increasingly to have a familiar formula, so that all the heros seem unoriginal and start to blend together.

  5. You’ve nailed all the good ones, but the ones that come to the top of my head are:

    1.) Alcoholic detective or PI
    2.) TSTL woman in jeopardy tropes
    3.) For romance, the sexed up couple who rut like they’re in season yet only have eyes for each other forever because they’re in love, for real this time.

  6. Ah, yes, the true romance trope. Forgot that one, Jordan. And reading about how much readers hate alcoholic PIs and detectives should be sobering for writers.

  7. I agree with everyone’s pet peeves. It’s so easy to fall into those annoying traps.

    I am lucky. As a thriller writer, I have a great resource for original stories and true- to-life heroes and villains. My husband is a retired police officer. He is experience spans 35 years as a deputy and patrol sergeant for the L.A. Sheriff’s Dept., a small rural community in Wyoming, the large metro area of Portland, Oregon, and another small town department in southern Oregon. His stories are fascinating, funny, heartbreaking, and scary. He has worked with the Secret Service, the state police, and the FBI.

  8. You touched on it when you mentioned the protag getting a beat down and two pages later is Iron Man… But I’ll add something I read in an earlier post on TKZ about weapons and ammo, and that’s the “flesh-wound gunshot to the shoulder” that is not incapacitating for the rest of the book~ and I don’t mean in just the old “arm in a sling” way, either~ if it doesn’t kill the character from shock or blood loss, the time required for rehab alone could kill the story~

    Then there’s the protag’s vehicle of choice~ either a monster muscle car of museum quality, or a semi-reliable rust-bucket with a cute nickname ~

    And speaking of cute names, some of the diners, dives, and drive-thrus (to steal a phrase), complete with their back stories, are a bit “too” cutsey for the real world~

    • Charlaine Harris’ Aurora Teagarden cozies are excellent, Beth. She really understands pacing and plants little clues that add an air of menace. Highly recommend them.

  9. I’m first?
    The insanely wealthy protagonist. Yes, we would all love to be Bruce Wayne and have ready access to homes around the world, Ferraris in every garage (that doesn’t need an SUV), and jets to whisk you and whoever between them. But it gets a bit much. I stopped reading a series that I otherwise liked on this.

    Can I stick in a wearing out your formula? An author DW likes had a new mystery series. DW thought I would like it. I enjoyed books one and two. Three was OK. By page 25 of book 4 I told DW: who did it and why; who was the friend who was going to be falsely charged; and what the big clue was. DW told me I was no fun.

    • Yep, you’re the first to come up with the insanely wealthy protag, Alan. They are tiresome, unless they have something to overcome — they have a fatal illness, they’re in danger of losing the one person they love — the flaw has to be that money cannot help them.

  10. “The pizza delivery person has never been hot and interested in me”

    As a long time pizza dude, there are customers who are hot and interesting. Where I work, they all tend to be married (As am I, so they are just pretty ladies who are nice to talk to) or half my age.

    But, since “You are cute.” can get you fired, it tends not to be said. Although I do know some drivers who have been “invited back.”

    Now my female driver friends are hit on all of the time. An nothing turns on a hard working 24 year old working until midnight to feed her daughter than to be texted something in a crude come on by a drunk dude who tipped 35 cents.

    • I knew a good-looking cop who would NEVER meet with any female without someone else with him, because of those fantasies, Alan. And until he knew you were not going to hit on him, he’d mention his wife every third sentence. Yep, I’ve been hit on while working. First, I’m married and second, even if I wasn’t, the guy who operates that way is the last dude I’d date.

  11. I love the examples–they made me chuckle. Thanks. I’d rather fall on my face trying something new (within the expectations of the genre, however), than to emulate something that’s been done over and over.

  12. One of my biggest pet peeves is the obligatory sex scene between characters, usually the protag and whomever he/she has just met like five minutes ago. Now, I’m all for a good sex scene. But…. they usually aren’t good. While there are those out there who will indeed hop in the sack with someone whom they don’t know and will likely never see again, it doesn’t work that way for most people most of the time. These scenes don’t feel “real”, or “natural”. They seem obligatory and routine, and are frequently not believable actions of one or both of the characters. Jack Reacher gets laid every book, and some of those women don’t seem like the type to hop into bed with a homeless stranger without a permanent set of clothes, and this isn’t a particularly egregious example.

    My second pet peeve is the massive injury that doesn’t harm the protag, or any of the other main characters. TV and movies are just as guilty of this. Not just the shot-in-the-shoulder scenario, but other gunshots, stabbings, massive beatings, broken bones, getting hit by a car, etc. Anybody that’s had a broken bone, or been stabbed or shot, or hit by a car, knows that the pain is so all consuming that carrying on a fight, or pretty much anything else, is not a realistic option, but it’s something that you see and read all the time.

  13. Yep, the old jump in the sack scene is tiresome and awkward. I don’t know if the writer is trying to be modern or just spice up the novel, but it doesn’t work on many levels.

  14. I loved this post! Everyone has great additions to the list.
    I recently discovered that a series I had been totally engaged in fell flat for me around book #15. There was nothing really new with the main characters, they did the same things, felt the same things as they had done for 14 other books. I was disappointed. The entire series had now become a cliche for me.
    I guess that can be a warning to stop a good series while it’s still on top.

  15. Amen, Julie. characters need to grow and change. That’s why I ended my Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper series after 10 books. I ran out things to say about Josie and didn’t want to bore my readers.

  16. Cliche: Diminutive female who can beat the crap out of men twice their size due to martial arts expertise. No. I’ve been in both judo and karate tournaments, and contestants were separated by skill level, weight, and sex. No matter how good you are, size matters.

  17. I don’t believe anyone has mentioned the crooked, murderous, or downright evil law enforcement people.
    In many movies, TV shows, and books police departments, the FBI, and other agencies are teeming with hard-core criminals and they are ridiculously often the primary villain(s).
    This has been way overdone in my opinion.
    Fun post, Elaine!

  18. Ordinary characters who survive being shot at by a team of professionals. This probably happens more so in movies, but I have read thrillers where the protagonist has been in a situation with one or more trained professionals shooting at them and not one bullet has found its mark (unless it’s the shoulder flesh wound that others have already noted). I knew someone who was in the SAS and I asked him if things happen like in the movies and his reply was “when we shot, we didn’t miss”.

      • Actually, they’re trained to stop the threat. Aiming for center mass usually does that, but their goal isn’t to kill the suspect, just stop him in the most expedient way possible.

    • I recall a line from a review of a Dirty Harry movie. “If Uzis were that inaccurate, the history of the Middle East would be vastly different.”

      At least most heroes need to reload now. No more 37 shot six shooters.

  19. I’m upset by the policeman, detective, or F.B.I agent who will not accept input, and is usually overly hostile to it, by the amateur sleuth. Sometimes even threatening the arrest of the amateur if he doesn’t keep his nose out of the investigation. The object should be to solve the crime by any means possible, so refusing help (even from an amateur sleuth) seem counterproductive to me.
    All stories need conflict, but this seems like forced conflict, for no reason other than ego.I don’t like to point fingers, but this happens a lot in British cozies.

  20. I love a female amateur sleuth but I’m tired of bland girls-next-door and hot messes. I want competence, spirit and wit in a heroine. And one that absolutely does not obsess about her weight.

  21. For my part, I find profanity cliché, just like the sex scenes. Hollywood used to convey tough characters without the language. The shock value is gone after so much overuse, and I find it simply annoying and distasteful. I won’t read a book like that – and don’t write them, either.

  22. Wow, after reading all of this, makes me want to throw in the towel on the thriller genre. I wrote my first novel and am on the rewrite. The Kill Zone critiqued my first page and said it was a tired cliché: Body on the beach. So I scrapped that scene and opted for another one, and was told that was a cliché too. It seems like everything is deemed a cliché. Feeling rather discouraged by all this as a beginning novelist.

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