Crime fiction is big business at the moment, but there are certain situations that have been overplayed so much that they have become genre cliches and everybody knows what to expect next. Here are ten cliches you should try to avoid and thoughts on how to subvert the cliches if you do decide to use them.
Cops and Doctors
You can find this perennial favourite in both crime and historical fiction. You’ll see it in ER, NYPD Blue and in cross -genre shows like the X Files. The doctor says “OK but only for a minute” or “It’s touch and go. The next few hours will be crucial” or “It could be minutes, it could be days… you never know with coma cases” The policemen usually say nothing. They just stand around and chew the scenery in frustration.
Mulder and Scully actually spend a lot of their time hanging around in hospitals but you don’t notice so much because the patients aren’t your run of the mill criminals or witnesses.
And that’s the way to get around this one. Get a new twist and add some tension. Maybe the patient is related to either the cop or the doctor. Or maybe the doctor is an amateur detective and knows better than the cop? But beware of the “Dick Van Dyke” syndrome… that leads you into a whole new area of cliche.
The New Partner
In this scenario a veteran cop has to get a new partner after the death of his old one. The rookie is either keen as mustard and eager to please, or burned out from personal problems. It’s probably best known in modern times from the Lethal Weapon movies. Screenwriters tried to add some tension early in 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 instalments. By the time the fourth movie came came along they had fallen so deeply into a buddy movie relationship that all drama was lost in favour of light comedy.
You need to do some serious subverting if you want to use this situation. People have tried having a dog as the buddy in K9, having their Mom as the buddy in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, and having foreigners as the buddy in big Arnie’s Red Heat.
Outside the strictly police procedural we’ve also had the robot buddy in Robocop, the ghost buddy in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), the alien buddy in Alien Nation, the magician buddy in Jonathan Creek, the ex-serviceman buddy in both Sherlock Holmes and Poirot. The list just goes on and on.
However you do it, filling in the blanks is easy in this scenario. What you need is something new. How about having the cop being given a politician doing a meet-the-people stint. Or, on a completely tasteless but might be funny level, how about the schizophrenic cop who is his own buddy?
The Rookie in the Morgue
Once only the province of young students in Quincy, this one now turns up on TV in the CSI franchise or Crossing Jordan and in print in the Kay Scarpetta books. There are usually two ways this one can proceed. Either the young cop rushes out, hand at mouth, or he stands still, icily cold and detached, as the autopsy proceeds.
Inspector Morse tried to subvert this situation by having the old timer as the squeamish one, but how about having the rookie as the pathologist?
Whatever you do, try not to give the pathologist a chance to be smug and patronizing while explaining large chunks of the plot. In the UK, this is overdone in Silent Witness and Waking the Dead, and is just a lazy way to advance the story.
The Cantankerous Lieutenant Chews Out The Cop
In films and television shows this happens to every protagonist, and Clint Eastwood for one 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 snarling at each other, so how about having one of them being completely calm and laid back? Or how about having one of them being deaf?
And if you must write this scene, please don’t use lines like “I’ll have your badge for that”, or “I’m not covering for you this time”.
The Slimy Defence Lawyer
This one was a hot favourite on NYPD Blue and was guaranteed to get right up Sipowitz’s nose. Once you’ve introduced the sharp suit, the slick hairstyle and the briefcase, this guy will inevitably say, “My client has no further comment,” or “You had no right to talk to him without me there.” Everybody knows the rest.
Again, serious though is needed to bring a new twist to this situation. Your lawyer could be an ex-cop who knows all the moves, or a relative or lover of one of the cops? How about a lawyer defending himself? Or a counter-culture lawyer covered with tattoos and piercings?
Whatever you do try to come up with some creative invective. Slimeball, sleazeball, reptile and shyster have all been overused.
The Car Chase
Bullit and The French Connection set the standard, and Gone in 60 Seconds brought it into the 21st Century, but this situation has mostly become tired. There are only so many little old ladies to avoid, so many road signs to hit, and so many police cars to trash before your audience becomes jaded.
Over the years the Bond movies have used up just about all the possible permutations, so you’ll struggle to come up with something new. It would be better to add tension in another way.
In a bid to appear fresh, the chase element has sometimes been dropped altogether in favour of the race against time as in Speed or Die Hard With a Vengeance. To succeed you’ll need a good reason for the journey to take place, a disastrous outcome if it’s not successful, and some good near misses on the way.
But beware. Too much carnage and your readers will start thinking of The Blues Brothers. And please, don’t have your protagonist drive the wrong way down a one-way street.. it’s been done far too often.
The Shoot Out
Raymond Chandler’s advice to crime writers still holds. “If your plot is flagging, have a man come in with a gun.” You’ve got to be careful though. Too many people still transfer scenes from old cowboy movies almost verbatim into modern cop scenes.
Probably the best recent shoot out was in Michael Mann’s Heat. You cared who lived or died, and there was excitement and tension. Therein lies the trick. Make your readers have an opinion, not just about your hero, but about the other characters as well. At the end of LA Confidential, we knew all of the people involved in the climax, and it made it more satisfying to watch who lived or died. Lining one-dimensional people up just as cannon fodder might work in a Saturday night popcorn movie, but we should be aiming higher than that.
Shoot outs work well on film, but they can be a drag in print. Some writers tend to slow things down, especially to have a close look at the wounds. 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 in Chips in every episode, giving them an excuse to show a motorbike speeding from a car park with loose gravel flying.
It’s also a favourite in most of the aforementioned buddy movies, and especially in Starsky and Hutch. They’ll be in a cafe, musing over the chewing out they’ve had from their boss, when a call comes through. The radio buzzes, giving them a chance to attach a flashing light to the roof of their car and head off to a car chase, closely followed by a shoot out. See how it’s possible to run one cliche into another? Pretty soon you’d have a whole plot, but would anybody buy it?
One way of changing this scene might be to have an alternative means of the cops getting the message. You could have them hearing something on the Television? Or how about on a cell-phone or laptop… there are multiple opportunities for foul ups, misunderstandings or criminal actions there, and they haven’t been overdone… yet.
Good Cop / Bad Cop
The good cop / bad cop interview became a cliche almost as soon as crime fiction began. A fine example, nearly seventy years old, can be seen in The Maltese Falcon. By now everybody knows the moves, and your readers will be bored long before the interview is over. Unless you’re being self-referential and ironic, as in LA Confidential you’ll never pull it off.
Cracker tried to subvert the interview situation altogether by having it performed by a psychiatrist who played both cops in one. In The Rock, Sean Connery as the prisoner told Nicholas Cage which questions he should be asking. You’ll need to find something similarly innovative if you’re going to make it 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 the children anymore.” The cop doesn’t say anything, because his mobile phone interrupts. You know the rest.
Cracker is again a good case in point as he went through this scene in almost every episode. Pacino played a variation of it with his girlfriend in 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 problems to overcome, culminating in Denzel Washington’s paraplegic investigator in The Bone Collector. I wouldn’t even try to top that.
Why not be original. Make your cop a healthy, stable, happily married man. Now there’s a challenge.
The next time you read or watch a police drama, notice how many of the above are still in use. All of them can occur in any one story, and frequently 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 anybody to buy it.