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This tips post is about raising your awareness of clichés so that you can take a red pen to them in your writing.
What are clichés?
A cliché is any expression that has been used so many times that it has lost its meaning and impact. The most famous one that absolutely every writer has heard of is the infamous story opening, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
We love to poke fun at that phrase, because of course we would never start a story that way. It’s the classic cliché opening line!
But there are many more. Here are a few:
- Just in the nick of time
- All is well that ends well
- The calm before the storm
- You can’t judge a book by its cover
- There are plenty of fish in the sea
- The grass is always greener on the other side
If you would like to read more about clichés and see more examples, here are some great resources:
How to detect and omit clichés
I was critiquing a story by one of my colleagues in my Write Club group the other day, and came across the phrase “conspiratorial tone.” This particular writer is very good, and I spend most of my time envying her clever story lines and beautiful prose. But I will tell her when I see a clunker, and I know she wouldn’t mind me sharing this as an example.
The fact is, all writers use clichés to some degree. The trick is to notice them and pull them out, the way you pull weeds from a beautiful garden. (As an aside, detecting issues such as clichés is a very good reason to "workshop" your fiction. We will talk about this in a future post.)
What’s the problem with a conspiratorial tone, or wink or smile?
We have heard it before. It is boring, and tells us nothing new. That’s what.
Anytime you find yourself writing a phrase that sounds all-too-familiar, revise it. Rewrite it in such a way that the reader doesn’t feel as though you’ve just tried to sell them day-old bread, pretending it’s fresh. In doing so, you can immediately elevate the quality of your writing.
The effect clichés have on us is that dull thud of recognition. We have been here before. This is not a sentiment we want readers to experience.
When you read a cliché expression, it may not even register in your consciousness, and yet some part of your brain yawns and is both bored and annoyed. You may not even know why, but it’s very often because it has already been said many times, either as a common expression or something that writers tend to overuse.
Here’s what I wrote in response to my colleague’s use of “conspiratorial tone”:
"This is one of those expressions that I always comment on when I critique fiction. It's an expression that is fundamentally fine and yet it always stands out in a jarring way. I think it's because it has been said so often that we're expected to just know what it means. But the fact is... it has been said so often. I always suggest a replacement. He could lean in and raise an eyebrow. Or nudge Tom with a bony elbow. Anything that would "show" this scene instead of encapsulating the moment in this way that has been used too many times."
I tell writers the same thing if their characters purse their lips. Can you really picture someone pursing their lips? Does it seem meaningful? And do you get a sense of what is really happening? Or are you just expected to accept this trite expression because it’s something writers say in other stories?
Clichés act as a literary crutch. They are phrases we lean on when the creative part of our brain turns off. Let go of the crutch. Write fresh words that you don't recall being phrased in just this way before.
Is it sometimes okay to use a cliché?
Yes, professional writers are in agreement that there are times when a cliché is actually appropriate. For example, as stated in the Master Class article on clichés referenced above, one example of an appropriate cliché is for characterization - for example, to demonstrate that a character is not an original thinker.
I like this idea, because we can learn so much about a character from dialog, even when what is said has been said before. I’ll make up a short vignette that includes a cliché.
The scenario: George and Joseph have gone to a cabin for a weekend retreat. George, cuckolded by his neighbor whom he caught slipping out the back door after a tryst with his (George’s) wife, is now planning his neighbor’s demise.
In the quiet, the two men sat smoking. The fire, in embers, seemed to carry on their conversation long after it had been reduced to mumbled commentary on George’s plan. George even dozed off a few times. But Joseph, feeling restless, was ready to head inside for his evening brandy. “Well,” he said, “all is fair in love and war.” Then he rose, poked the fire apart, and retreated to the cabin.
In this case, the story line may be somewhat dramatic - a weekend get-away to plan a murder - but when one of the characters is tired, he issues a trite (clichéd) statement as a way to make an exit. Perhaps you want to demonstrate that even in the midst of two men planning a horrible crime, there is an almost bizarre sense that everything is normal. It depends on the tone and intent of the story.
Note: The expression in this example is actually known as a “thought-terminating cliché,” and you can read about it in the Master Class page referenced above.
Parting thoughts on avoiding clichés
Use clichés with care, and only when they have a true purpose. Consider rewriting the phrase with something more descriptive and original when any of the following are true:
- You write an expression that you have heard or read many times
- You write a line that has a familiar ring to it, and you’re not sure where you have heard it before
- A phrase you write conveniently summarizes what is happening, without providing detail that helps the reader to truly envision or connect in a sensory way with the scene
“She pursed her lips”
“His blood ran cold”
“The thought had never crossed his mind”
“She jumped for joy”
“They ran through the woods in blind terror”
“He gave her a conspiratorial wink”
Think about what these things really mean, and what you actually want to convey, and then come up with fresh language to use instead.
@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.
If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.
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