(In the grand tradition ofJohn Van Sickle’s Grand list of Overused Science Fiction Clichés, the Grand list of SF clichés, Things I learnt at the Movies, and Not So Grand Cliché List, Jackie Speel is here to make her own contributions to literature – and what not to do – at MuseHack)
This is an attempt to create a list of clichés and tropes to be avoided in crime fiction, whether written or onscreen. As with other such lists it is the way in which the cliché is handled that is the key factor. Even middling to good series are likely to have the occasional episode which ‘ticks several of the boxes.’
Standard usages (eg ‘555’ as part of US fictional phone-numbers) do not count. Nor do the standard scene-setting components of the story (which enable everybody to concentrate on the plot).
While standalone stories are common in most series – regular or occasional – the difference tends to be whether there is an underlying story arc or chronology, with continuity of the characters’ backstories or completely freestanding.
- Multi-episode story arcs will require the entire series to resolve the given crime. This applies even when the denouement becomes obvious long before the series end. Characters do not ask the obvious questions or make the deductions that they would in Real Life. This also includes the ‘will they, won’t they’ category of story arcs, and cliffhanger episodes (whether or not the sequels are actually produced).
- There will be no reference to current events in reality (to keep the shelf life going) or even within the world (there must be elections and other activities that show time’s arrow).
- The only time newspapers bought and TV news programs watched is when there is an article with a direct bearing on the investigation in question. There is no need for any other reading/viewing.
- Passwords can be immediately deduced, and relevant programs transferred in seconds – and the computers’ users have not considered taking measures against such activities.
- The only crime worth investigating is murder. No other crime, however complex/ingenious in constructing or resolving, is worth considering. (In reality the ‘other crimes’ can be far more interesting and a challenge to create as fiction.)
- Two murders/several (petty) crimes will be interlinked far more frequently than is statistically likely in Real Life.
- Motives for committing the crime will be banal or involve non-rational motives, and subsequent murders by the same criminal will not be done for consistent motives.
- The murder(s) will be committed as messily/unpleasantly as possible.
- It is much easier and more likely for someone to undertake criminal activity including murder than attempt to resolve simple misunderstandings or ask for relevant information at the time.
- Chance finds, happenstance, and unlikely meetings with the one person who might know something are an essential part of solving the crime, rather than using detective skills.
- Private individuals who investigate the crimes which regularly and repeatedly occur around them are never considered as possible serial murderer candidates.
- These private individuals can solve murders without having any formal training in the relevant fields/apparently having appropriate knowledge. They can resolve the crime without having access to the resources of the police/investigating unit, just by using ‘common sense’ or spotting things the police have unaccountably missed.
- A regular character’s actual skills will be ignored or used only intermittently, and there will never be a ‘puzzle’/crime within their field.
- In an official investigating organisation of whatever nature:
- The lead figure is regularly in conflict with their immediate superiors/immediate inferiors
- There will be tensions within the department, whether sexual or otherwise
- Everybody is able to switch to the latest investigation, however important their own work at the time, regardless of increased workload, and probability of some cases being abandoned, with consequent negative press.
- The same people will be on duty whatever the story, and there is no turnover of personnel
- Health and Safety equipment/posters are rarely present.
- Many will have fractured personal lives, which will be given significant coverage, despite being totally irrelevant to the story.
- Persons’ entire lives consist of ‘work’ and ‘matters purely domestic’ – they have no hobbies or other interests.
- (Those involved are likely to seek transfer to units where a more practical policy is in operation.)
- No matter how ancient the crime (relative to the timeframe of the series), there will always be someone around who was on the case/knows something vital, and/or was not contacted despite being an obvious source of information.
- With such old cases there will be ‘obvious even at the time lines of enquiry which were for some reason not pursued.’
- The files for ancient cases will always be available, while modern ones will get misplaced. Files and other records will never be linked/boxed up with unrelated cases.
- When there is insufficient plot to fill the time/space available, fill the gaps with gratuitous sex/violence/discordant music (if TV) and other ‘plot-fillers not related to the storyline.’ (Complaints about excessive background music, whether or not relevant to what is on screen, are regularly made in ‘Your comments’ areas in newspapers.)
- At least one person should actually be someone completely different – without there being any hint beforehand.
- With a series provincial towns and villages will have far more murders than would seem likely for the area. (Or even for large cities.)
- Nor, given the relatively high rate of murders is there either a mass exodus of people fearing for their lives or an influx of media or conspiracy theorists trying to observe the phenomenon.
- Similarly with series there will be a far larger number of ‘places of interest’ (museums, stately homes, heritage railways etc) and activities/events (fairs etc) than might be expected, even for popular tourist centres – most of which will never appear again. (In TV series some will appear to occupy different parts of the same building.)
- The reader/viewer wants a complete surprise – provide many red herrings and false trails, rather than clues for them to work out who might have committed the crime and why.
- With long running series there will be one episode where the lead detective is incapacitated through ill health, and researches a historical mystery, and/or goes on holiday, gets told of a local unsolved crime which they are able to solve despite the hostility of the local police.
- There will also be one episode where the lead detective is suspended or warned off a case and manages to solve it in their own time.
- Plot holes can be ignored, even when they disrupt the story and its solution.
- Murders set in the past will involve psychologically implausible for the time motives and mindsets (and possibly for those in the present). Persons in the past will have the same attitudes towards cultural ‘good points and bad points’ as we do now (rather than accepting that ‘that is the way things are’ or attempting to reform things we do not see as needing change.)
- Historical and other research will be displayed in full detail: things obvious #then# but unfamiliar #now# will be explained in detail, however much those in the series would regard it as ‘stating the #### obvious’ unless to be used as a rabbit out of the hat solution.
- Historical events and weapons, language that has changed meaning, and customs that have died out can be used to obscure the plots.
- Modern English (or equivalent) rather than that contemporary to the setting will be used not only to make it easier to understand the dialogue, but to an extent that “feels wrong” to the reader/viewer. Alternatively twee and quaint language is used to an extent that renders the dialogue difficult to comprehend if not annoying, and in contexts where it would not have been used.
- Science fiction detective stories will rely on excessive use of gizmos, which do not have a backstory.
Further suggestions welcome.