Turn Your Scene That’s Becoming a Cliché Into a Reader’s Surprise

by | Writing | 4 comments

“I look for ways to purposely write myself into corners and then use them to my advantage.” —Steven James (Writer’s Digest July/August 2015)


image by ClkeFreeVectorImages

image by ClkeFreeVectorImages

While writing a scene, I realized it was turning into a cliché for a Christmas story. Snow falls and the couple builds a snowman or starts a snowball fight. I thought, “Will you, much less your readers, be satisfied with that?”

Image by kerplode

Image by kerplode

To my surprise as I typed more words, the hero suggested a twist mid cliché. Something told me not to backspace through the paragraphs leading into the cliché activity. I allowed my hero to switch from the familiar pursuit to an activity I’d done in my past. Something most characters don’t do in a Christmas story.

Two benefits naturally emerged from my unique solution:

  1. I was forced to bring out much deeper character values than in the developing cliché. Better than the heroine squealing and yelling, “Don’t you dare hit me with that snowball!”
  1. By allowing the scene to head into a cliché, it became a red herring. I started out in one direction then orchestrated a switcheroo. Surprise! The bonus: the reader’s greater understanding of the characters’ values and characters.

I added this idea to my scene checklist:

Look for cliché activities and turn them into surprises for the reader. Click to tweet.


Sarah pulled herself into a sitting position and rested her back against the headboard. If she didn’t overcome this illness soon and help Clay in the fields, they’d lose much of the crop. They still didn’t know if the drought had hurt the wheat. As it was, the proceeds would barely be enough to pay their bills.

She slid her legs over the edge of the bed. When she stood, lightheadedness and nausea seized her, and her knees wobbled. She crawled into bed. Clay didn’t need to come home and find her on the floor. He already spent too much time worrying about her slow progress.

image by Jan Temmel

image by Jan Temmel

As she stared out the window, a tear rolled to her jaw. In the distance, Clay strode in from the fields for lunch. She grabbed her comb from the bedside table and went to work on her tangled hair. Was that flowers he was carrying?

The door opened and paper rustled in the other room. What was Clay doing?

Clay clomped into the bedroom and held out the flowers concealed in a sheet of her drawing paper. His lips trembled, and he looked as if he’d cry at any moment. What had Clay done wrong that brought on rare tears and flowers?

image by sushi

image by sushi

Studying his face for a clue, she accepted his guilt offering. Her fingers shook as she unwrapped a posy of … healthy green wheat.


To me, a man bringing flowers to his sick wife is nice, but a little cliché-like. Making this activity a red herring for his wife and the reader will liven up the scene. Their actions say a lot about them and their relationship.

What are other cliché-like activities?

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  1. Marcia

    Loved the herring.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Thanks, Marcia. I had fun thinking it up.

  2. Karla Reisch Akins

    I want to get better at red herrings!

  3. Zoe M. McCarthy

    Me too, Karla. I’m having fun thinking up red herrings that will fit naturally in my story.

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