Criminal fiction: ten cliches to avoid
Crime fiction is big business right now, but there are certain situations that have been so exaggerated that they have become genre clichés and everyone knows what to expect next. Here are ten cliches you should try to avoid and thoughts on how to subvert the cliches if you decide to use them.
Police and Doctors
You can find this perennial favorite in both crime and historical fiction. You’ll see it on ER, NYPD Blue, and on cross-genre shows like The X-Files. The doctor says “Okay, but just for a minute” or “It’s a tap and go. The next few hours will be crucial” or “It could be minutes, it could be days … you never know with coma cases “Cops generally don’t say anything. They just stand and chew on the landscape in frustration.
Mulder and Scully spend a lot of their time hanging around hospitals, but you don’t realize as much because patients aren’t your ordinary criminals or witnesses.
And that’s the way to fix this problem. Give it a new twist and add some tension. Perhaps the patient is related to the policeman or the doctor. Or maybe the doctor is an amateur detective and knows more than the policeman? But beware of the “Dick Van Dyke” syndrome … which takes you into a whole new area of cliché.
The new partner
In this scenario, a veteran police officer has to find a new partner after the death of the previous one. The newbie is eager as mustard and eager to please, or is exhausted by personal problems. He is probably best known in modern times from the Lethal Weapon movies. The writers tried to add some tension to the beginning of the series by having Mel Gibson as a borderline suicide case, and that gave the first film an edge; but it was lost in later installments. By the time the fourth movie came out, they had fallen so deeply into a movie buddy relationship that the entire drama was lost in favor of light comedy.
You need to do some serious subversion if you want to use this situation. People have tried having a dog as a companion in K9, and having their mom as a companion in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, and have strangers as friends in the great Arnie’s Red Heat.
Outside of strictly police procedure, we’ve also had the robot sidekick in Robocop, the ghost sidekick in Randall and Hopkirk (deceased), the alien sidekick in Alien Nation, the wizard sidekick in Jonathan Creek, the ex-military sidekick in Sherlock Holmes and Poirot. . The list goes on and on.
Regardless of how you do it, filling in the blanks is easy in this scenario. What you need is something new. What if they give the policeman a politician who does a period of meeting with the people? Or, on a completely bland level but it could be fun, how about the schizophrenic cop who is your own friend?
The rookie in the morgue
Once just the province of young students in Quincy, this one now appears on television in the CSI or Crossing Jordan franchise and in print in Kay Scarpetta’s books. There are generally two ways to proceed with this one. Either the young policeman runs off, hand over his mouth, or he stands still, frozen and distant, while the autopsy progresses.
Inspector Morse tried to subvert this by making the veteran the most apprehensive, but what if the rookie was the pathologist?
Whatever you do, try not to give the pathologist a chance to be cocky and condescending while explaining large parts of the plot. In the UK, this is exaggerated in Silent Witness and Waking the Dead, and it’s just a lazy way to advance the story.
The naive lieutenant chews the cop
In movies and TV shows, this happens to every lead, and Clint Eastwood must be tired of it. In the Dirty Harry series he was rarely out of his boss’s office.
It usually ends up with the lieutenant and the cop growling at each other, so what if one of them is completely calm and relaxed? Or what if one of them is deaf?
And if you must write this scene, don’t use phrases like “I’ll have your badge for that” or “I won’t cover you this time.”
The slimy defense attorney
This was a favorite at NYPD Blue and it was guaranteed to get right on Sipowitz’s nose. Once you have presented the elegant suit, the elegant hairstyle and the briefcase, this guy will inevitably say, “My client has no more comments” or “He had no right to speak to him without me there.” Everyone knows the rest.
Once again, something serious is needed to put a new spin on this situation. Could your lawyer be a former cop who knows all the moves, or a relative or lover of one of the policemen? How about a lawyer who defends himself? Or a counterculture lawyer covered in tattoos and piercings?
Whatever you do, try to come up with some creative invective. Slimeball, sleazeball, reptile, and shyster have been overused.
Bullit and The French Connection set the standard, and Gone in 60 Seconds brought it into the 21st century, but this situation has become almost tiresome. There are a limited number of old ladies to avoid, so many road signs to hit, and so many police cars to throw away before the public tires.
Over the years, Bond movies have spent almost every possible permutation, so you’ll have a hard time finding something new. It would be better to add tension in another way.
In an attempt to look cool, the chase element has sometimes been removed entirely in favor of the race against time, as in Speed or Die Hard With a Vengeance. To be successful, you will need a good reason for the journey to take place, a disastrous outcome if you are unsuccessful, and a few good near misses along the way.
But beware. Too much carnage and your readers will start thinking about The Blues Brothers. And please don’t let your protagonist drive the wrong way down a one-way street … it’s been done too often.
Raymond Chandler’s advice to crime writers still stands. “If your plot is weakening, have a man come in with a gun.” However, you must be careful. Too many people still transfer scenes from old cowboy movies almost literally to modern police scenes.
Probably the best recent shootout was on Michael Mann’s Heat. You cared who lived or who died, and there was excitement and tension. Therein lies the trick. Make your readers have an opinion, not only about your hero, but also about the other characters. By the end of LA Confidential, we knew everyone involved in the climax, and it was more satisfying to see who lived or died. Lining up one-dimensional people like cannon fodder might work in a popcorn movie on Saturday night, but we should aim higher than that.
Shootouts work well on film, but they can be a drag on printing. Some writers tend to slow things down, especially to take a closer look at injuries. Unless you’re careful, it can read like a medical textbook.
And please don’t have heads “exploding like ripe watermelons.”
The cop in the cafe
This was used on Chips in every episode, giving them an excuse to show a motorcycle speeding from a parking lot with loose gravel flying.
He’s also a favorite in most of the aforementioned buddy movies, and especially Starsky and Hutch. They will be in a cafe, reflecting on the criticism they have had from their boss, when a call comes in. The radio plays, giving them a chance to put a flashing light on the roof of their car and head into a car chase, closely followed by a shooting. Do you see how it is possible to turn one cliche into another? Very soon you would have a complete plot, but would someone buy it?
One way to change this scene could be to have an alternative means for the police to get the message. Could you make them listen to something on TV? Or how about on a cell phone or laptop … there are multiple opportunities for mistakes, misunderstandings, or criminal actions there, and they haven’t been exaggerated … yet.
Good cop / bad cop
The interview between the good cop and the bad cop became a cliche almost as soon as the crime fiction began. A good example, almost seventy years old, can be seen in The Maltese Falcon. By now, everyone knows the moves and your readers will be bored long before the interview ends. Unless you are self-referential and ironic, like in LA Confidential, you will never make it.
Cracker tried to completely subvert the interview situation by having it conducted by a psychiatrist who played both cops in one. In The Rock, Sean Connery as a prisoner told Nicholas Cage what questions he should ask. You will need to find something equally innovative if you want it to work.
How about having two good cops? Or two bad cops? Or maybe there is a new computer system designed by psychologists to ask the right questions in the right order? How would your cops and your prisoner handle that?
The estranged wife
Why do all fictional cops have relationship problems? This scene always goes the same way. The wife says, “You never see children again.” The policeman does not say anything, because his mobile phone interrupts. You know the rest.
Cracker is again a good example, as he went through this scene in almost every episode. Pacino played a variation with his girlfriend on Heat.
Not only does Cracker have a failed marriage, but he’s also a gambler and a drinker. In recent years, people have been giving cops more and more trouble to overcome, culminating in paraplegic investigator Denzel Washington at The Bone Collector. I wouldn’t even try to get over that.
Why not be original? Make your police a healthy, stable and happily married man. Now there is a challenge.
The next time you read or watch a police drama, take a look at how many of the above are still in use. They can all occur in any story, and they often do … just shuffle the paragraphs, add a murder or two, and you have an instant plot.
But unless you can subvert some of the cliches, don’t expect anyone to believe you.