I don't use these in my writing. I can't stand them. They're more than pet peeves; they crawl under my skin and irritate. They're poison to my enjoyment of the story.
This doesn't mean I hate you as a person, or even an author, if you use these in your work. It doesn't even mean I hate your story. But if your story contains any of these, you'd better have a compelling reason for me to continue reading. Because I usually put the book down.
1) Love Triangle.
I'm not going to be kind here. A LOVE TRIANGLE WILL NOT IMPROVE YOUR STORY. Period. There have been a handful of stories in the course of mankind where a love triangle was appropriate, useful, and entertaining. A handful in which a love triangle was an improvement to the story.
Yours isn't one of those.
Yes, I'm talking to you.
A love triangle is a contrived device to aid the also overused "will they, won't they" plot. The difference between the two? "Will they, won't they" can and has been told in new, interesting ways. Observe the Iron Man series, in which Pepper and Stark have a slow falling-together sort of romance. But there's always this question: Is Tony capable of caring about someone else more than he cares about himself? And is he able to express that?
Love Triangles, on the other hand, are trite and pathetic. The best execution I've ever seen has been in the Hunger Games trilogy, and that was strictly bearable. It would have been a better series had that not been a part of it.
I put down the Mortal Instruments series as soon as the triangle popped up. Note: I tolerated other serious offenses, but as soon as this happened, I stopped reading. AS SOON AS IT HAPPENED.
You are not immune to the harm it can do. You are not immune to me putting down the book.
2) School Days.
I've been through school. Elementary, Middle, and High School, I've been to them. I know what they're like. I didn't enjoy my time there. I wouldn't go back if I could.
Want to know a secret? 99.9% of readers feel the exact same way. If you put your characters in school, you need to be ready for the consequences. Just today, I put down a story when it revealed that the characters would be attending school.
School is not an interesting framework for a story.
School is not an original setting.
School is not innovating your genre, whatever genre you're writing in.
Consider: Must my character be in that age range?
Consider: Why can't my characters be out of school for one reason or another (summer break, school having burned down, kids skipping class--all are viable options)?
Consider: Why do these scenes need to take place during school hours? Could they not happen in the evening?
Ok, granted. if you're writing for Middle Grade or Young Adult, I might let you get away with this. Assuming you don't try to make me attend Math class. Then the book will burn.
Also granted, if you make it interesting enough, I will work through it. The Giver, by Lois Lowry, has a scene near the very beginning that's set in school. The difference? Lowry uses this everyday activity to point out that this is a totalitarian society that controls how people think, and it starts in school. Similarly, Halo: The Fall of Reach has children learning about the ancient Greeks in class. The difference? These children have been abducted from their homes and are being brainwashed into becoming the Sci-Fi equivalent to Spartan soldiers. (Both of these books are must-reads, whether you're into Sci-Fi or not, whether you're into Halo or not.)
You see where I'm going here? Your version of school will not impress me. Don't try, unless you're doing something truly incredible.
3) Character Mulch
I'm fine with an author killing off a character. I'm fine with an author who kills off a handful of characters in every book. I'm fine with an author who kills main characters, even unexpectedly. There's nothing like a main character death to set the "Anyone Can Die" mood in your stories. Nothing affects the reader to that degree, and nothing raises that much tension.
Heck, I've done it myself, more than once. Whenever the story demands a character die, I do it without the slightest hesitation.
What I'm not fine with, what I can't stand, what will make me throw down the book in disgust, is when an author kills off a character to set the mood, and doesn't consider the repercussions.
A comic book reviewer named Lewis Lovhaug (also known as Linkara) briefly described the main problem with doing this. To put it simply, you need to consider: Does killing this character provide me with more opportunities to tell great stories than I'd have if I left a character alive? Or in other words, DOES KILLING THIS CHARACTER IMPROVE MY STORY?
That's pretty vague. When you look at the surface, of course! Shocking the reader, producing emotion, is a good thing. So if you aren't sure what I mean by that, I'll go in better depth.
Does the character you're thinking of killing have an arc? A journey that he or she goes through during the story, coming out a different person? If the death is supposed to matter, the character should. And if the death isn't supposed to matter, then WHY KILL THEM in the first place???
If your character has an arc, has he or she completed that personal journey at the point you're thinking of killing him or her off? Nine times out of ten, you shouldn't kill a character before he or she completes the arc you've designed.
The only exception to that last rule is "Kill 'em All" stories, in which the unpredictability, horror, and inevitability of death is the point. This is a step beyond "Anyone Can Die". This is "George R. R. Martin must be ghost writing". This is a story set in the Vietnam war, or a guerrilla resistance of an invasion from China.
The last guideline I'll give is this: If the character has a name, don't kill them off-screen. I'm looking at you, Feist. I'm looking at you, Rowling. If the character has a name, particularly if he or she has been around for at least one year (real world or in-world), don't kill him or her off-screen. And for God's sake, don't make the death embarrassing if the character is famous for being capable or intelligent!
If you disobey any of these rules, I might not put your book down (these tend to happen more than halfway through the book), but I will refuse to recommend the book to friends. Unless the rest of your story is so awesome as to overwhelm these.
Rowling, for instance. Harry Potter has all three of these. And other problems, besides. But the rest of her story is so good, and these elements are introduced in such a tolerable way, that I still recommend the books to the curious.
Well, there's my thoughts on things I can't stand! Do you have any you'd like to share? Anything on my list you want to rant about? Feel free!
I try to link to pieces I get information or inspiration from, but sometimes I can't, and well, sometimes I just want to link to awesome stuff I've mentioned. As such...
Here is Linkara's comic review show, Atop the Fourth Wall. Consistently funny, and constantly informative to anyone who wants to learn more about comic books.
And here is Writing Excuses again, this time on killing characters. I tried not to repeat what they said here. It's not easy. Almost all the good points were taken. Seriously. Listen to this before you kill someone. Err, a character.