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Clichés–Are They Really That Bad?

January 26, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified January 28, 2011

Are clichés really that bad for your novels? The short answer is yes, they truly are. And a slew of clichés in a novel or short story is much worse than a single one that manages to get past your internal editor.

But because I’m not one for a short answer, I’ll expand and explain why clichés don’t add anything positive to your novel and why instead they detract from it.

Clichés are overused expressions that at one time might have been original. They can be used as shortcuts—she’s as cute as a button, I’ve painted myself into a corner, it’s as easy as pie—when we don’t want to make the effort of searching for a new description or finding that perfect verb. In speech, clichés are common; using them makes for quick communication.

But in novels, and even in shorter fiction, clichés serve to make the reading bland and stale. They are someone else’s words brought into a new plot. The cliché may not fit the character, the setting, the era, the social background of the story, or the genre.

Using clichés is like wearing someone else’s old and dirty clothes. They might have looked good at one time, but they don’t look good anymore. They don’t fit right and they don’t smell too good and they do nothing to improve your looks and bearing.

They. Don’t. Fit. Not as well as fresh words written for a particular story and specific characters would fit.

Instead of bland and lifeless, old and stale, you want to create phrases that are fresh and new and eye-catching and arresting. You want to draw readers deeper into your fiction by matching words and phrases to your characters and plot, phrases that no other story has. If you’ve used common phrases—phrases that fit any story—you know they don’t fit yours. Not the way new and exact phrases, crafted specifically for a particular story, would fit.

Puzzle pieces can’t be forced into a puzzle where they don’t belong, not if you want the puzzle to come out right. Words shouldn’t be forced into a story where they don’t fit.

Word choice is one of the strongest tools for making your story original. Unique. Why force inexact words into your writing? Why take the tired and common and mix them into your fresh passages? Why dump in bland when you’re trying to write something that stands out?

You could argue that a character speaks in clichés. And she might. There’s nothing wrong with giving quirks to a character. But all your characters won’t use clichés. And your omniscient narrator shouldn’t (unless you’re going after a certain effect).

Words carry a story’s flavor. Sprinkle yours with phrases that are sweet or spicy or bitter, not with old words that reek of rot and decay.

Don’t serve your readers tired words. They want vibrant phrases that mean something, not dull phrases that have lost their significance.

Go for bold and fresh rather than trite and sour. Use your words. Create new phrases, new similes and metaphors, that tighten your story threads. Use phrases to anchor your characters to your setting and plot.

Using clichés is like using someone else’s melody in your music or thinking someone else’s thoughts—their melody would be discordant inside yours; their thoughts wouldn’t help you get through your day.

Not only don’t clichés add to your writing, they can weaken it. Common phrases can turn off readers, they can keep you from weaving a tight story with no holes. Because they come to us so easily, we may write clichés without thought, without asking what those phrases add to the story and which direction they’re sending the plot.

Do clichés say exactly what you mean? Not often. And if you slave over your other words, why would you let less exacting words slip in to dilute your descriptions or dialogue or action?

*******

Practice creating fresh phrases. Take clichés and change them—as cold as ice, as black as sin, he’s got a couple of screws loose, her head’s always in the clouds. Be creative. See what happens when you put your slant or personality on such phrases.

Then look at your own writing. Take out the common and put in something new, something that your character would think as he looks at the sky or at his wife or at his enemy. What kinds of words would he use, a man of his background, especially in the circumstances in which he finds himself?

Use words and phrases that reveal character, that reveal motivation or intention. Use words that reflect your story’s genre and reveal your story’s theme.

Root out clichés and tired phrases from your manuscripts and then create your own phrases. Produce melodies in your words. Give your works a fresh and vibrant flavor, a flavor your readers will appreciate and savor and want to experience again and again.

*******

For fun, a cliché-riddled blurb…

I had to reach the end of my rope before I could reach for the stars. I had to hope against hope that I’d soon see the light at the end of the tunnel. After all, what comes around goes around, and I’d spread it around pretty thick.

I wasn’t yet out of the woods or in the clear. But time was running out and I needed to wake up and smell the coffee. The mob wanted to see me six feet under, but I wasn’t ready to buy the farm. Their enforcer had tried to eighty-six me, but he missed by a hair and now he’s eating crow. He’d come armed to the teeth, yet he’d bitten off more than he could chew with me. I had an ace in the hole—when Armand sent him after me, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and I was madder than a wet hen and fit to be tied. Ordering a hit on me got my dander up, and I saw red, so I fought back like a man possessed.

Nah, I’m not just another pretty face; I’m built like a tank. That enforcer discovered actions speak louder than words. When I clobbered him, with both of us sweatin’ like pigs, you could hear a pin drop. I laid down the law and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him since.

So, life goes on. At least mine does. And while I’m reaching for those stars, my feet firmly tethered to the earth, I’m gonna roll with the punches, remember I’m in it for the long haul, and fly by the seat of my pants when I’m not dancing with the devil. I’ll be cool as a cucumber and as sweet as sugar unless someone gets my goat. And then I’ll turn over a new leaf.

Life’s too short to always be fighting against the tide; sometimes you gotta go with the flow. It’s not always win-win because you win some and you lose some, and besides, it’s not about winning, but how you play the game.

I’ve been laying it on thick, but this could be the start of something big, so I want to be ready for anything.

Better quit while I’m ahead. Besides, I’ve got other fish to fry.

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18 Responses to “Clichés–Are They Really That Bad?”

  1. Kat Sheridan says:

    Excellent advice and I’m laughing like a hyena at your example!

  2. It is pretty bad, isn’t it, Kat? I admit that I’ve never seen anything as filled with cliche as my example. But I did count over a dozen cliches on adjacent pages in a book once.

  3. Judi Fennell says:

    And then there’s me…

    I actually liked the cliche explosion – it read to me like a tough-guy wannabe mobster who’s got some, uh, “size” issues and is trying to make up for them. I think he could work as a character, as long as the reader knows the author is making fun of someone like this. So, I’m of the mind that cliches have a purpose–even if it’s mockery.

  4. Cliches can be put to use–thus the caveat that some characters or a narrator might use them, especially to create a certain effect.

    You’ll laugh, Judi, when I tell you that this was a woman at first, until I came across the “fighting like a man possessed” cliche. She became a guy in an instant.

  5. Wanda says:

    I loved this whole piece! And it’s funny that you said it was a woman first, cause I read it that way. So it was a twist when it became a man. Anywho…. this piece tickled me pink. Tickled my funnybone.Cliches rule. heh

  6. Wanda, cliches do try to take over, don’t they? Glad you enjoyed the article.

  7. I wrote about cliches marked in a manuscript rejection on my blog tonight, and a follower instantly pinged me back to you. This is a great post. Cliche’s need to be banned. Some, though, people seem to be fighting for.

  8. Jennifer, I’m glad you found the post. Cliches have a place if they’re a character quirk, but otherwise they don’t do a thing to make a story unique. And I’m guessing most of us want unique and memorable for our stories. Here’s to fresh words that fit character and plot, and make stories spectacular.

  9. I like the article soo much! I was writing a school essay about a memorable person. Before a teacher recommeded this to me, I’d put in quite a few cliches. I get how to use them now! I really like that story.. I don’t know. It always seemed like a man to me.:) Hooray for fresh words!

  10. Mira, I’m glad this article was helpful. I love that a student found a use for it. And yes, hooray for those fresh words; there’s nothing like making the writing your own.

  11. Peter says:

    I really enjoyed this. I write just as a hobby when I’m bored or depressed, it helps focus my mind on another world for a few precious hours.

    I have nearly fallen into the cliche trap, and only once I’ve read it after completion I think to myself just how cheesy and common it sounds.

  12. Peter, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m with you on cheesy. When the character needs to be cheesy, that’s one thing. We don’t want our writing, however, to be looked at that way. Thank you for letting us know you were here.

  13. Thomas says:

    How about a case where a narrator uses a cliche, then points it out?

    “I felt as though my soul were leaving my body, cliche of cliches, and then I was too far away to see anything anymore.”

    Or is this considered “meta?” And has that become a cliche all its own?

  14. Thomas, a character could say anything that’s in character for him. But writing in a character’s awareness of a cliche could easily distract readers, make them note that they’re reading a story. I’m for anything that keeps the reader inside the fiction, looking at story events, rather than outside noticing the cleverness of the writer.

    Of course, if you want that awareness between character and reader, then this would be one way to include it. Metafiction’s been around a long while, so there’s obviously an audience for it. Is it cliche? I don’t know. A style that could use a new twist or two? Maybe.

    Good questions.

  15. Every time i have read novels everyone is always described as having dark eyes or black eyes(very strange) ive never read about anyone having sparkling green eyes or pale blue eyes etc. It seems to be the law that everyone in novels has to have dark eyes

  16. Chris, what genre do you typically read? I ask because at one time, romances always seemed to feature a hero with blue or green eyes or gray eyes. Maybe the choices are cyclical.

  17. oh all sorts classic and modern it just seems that every time i pick up a novel classic or modern they always seem to be described as having dark or black eyes maybe just a coinsidence

  18. Chris, I’m laughing because something I just read had a guy with black eyes.

    I’m guessing a lot of sci-fi and fantasy have characters with black eyes—the color often seems other-wordly.

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