Making Clichés Work in Your Writing

3 Ways to Make Cliches Work in Your Writing

True story: Sometime last year, I encountered a man named Howard (name changed to protect the not-so-innocent) who had written a fantasy novel that he couldn’t seem to sell. And he just couldn’t understand it. “My work is 100-percent cliché free! I hate, loathe, and despise clichés. I’ve scoured my work and eliminated every single cliché. This is the most original story ever written!”

Hmmmm…

Face It: You Can’t Escape Cliches in Your Writing

Howard didn’t understand the pervasive power of cliches anywhere near as well as he thought he did. The sad fact is that, with thousands of cliches roaming about the vast landscape of the English language, it’s pretty darn near impossible to write a story without clichés. This is a fact.

It’s also a fact that cliches are pretty much the kiss of death (pardon the, well… you know) in fiction. So how can authors like you and me and poor Howard go about reconciling this dichotomy?

Why Cliches Are Kinda Awesome

It’s important to understand that cliches only become cliches because they originated as powerful statements that quickly spiraled into wild popularity. In other words, being the author of a cliche is high praise. It means you’ve written a witty, pithy, and eye-opening statement that helps bring your point alive for other people.

“Penny for your thoughts,” “best thing since sliced bread,” “chip off the old block, and “bull in a china shop” are all examples of great writing… the first time around, anyway. Ironically, it was their own popularity that eventually destroyed their effectiveness.

The Not-So-Awesome Side of Cliches–And How to Blast ‘Em

We all use cliches without even thinking. They’re familiar, easily understood concepts. But they’re also flat. They’re like a bright red balloon turned limp after the helium fizzed out. The brilliance is gone. And no self-respecting writer wants to use a lackluster phrase in his writing. So how to get rid of them?

1. Find and Destroy Your Cliches

The first (and, hopefully, most obvious) tactic for eradicating cliches is to simply keep your eyes open and blast ‘em wherever you spot them crawling about in your work. Despite our friend Howard’s claims, chances are extremely slim you’ll spot them all. But if you can squash the ones you see, you’ll be way ahead of the ball game.

2. Make Up Your Own Cliches!

Once all the obvious clichés are gone, you get the fun of replacing them with your own sparkling gems. Getting rid of clichés forces you to dig deeper and look beyond the obvious in your prose—and, hopefully, allow your readers to see things in a new light. Instead of writing the old familiar “not in a million years,” what about replacing it with “not in a river’s lifetime,” as I did in A Man Called Outlaw?

3. Learn to “Turn” Cliches

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers Renni Browne Dave KingConsidering how brilliant many clichés are, it seems a shame to have to obliterate them. And, in fact, we don’t always have to.

Notwithstanding Howard’s ranting to the opposite, there are occasions when you can not only get away with clichés, but actually make them work for you by giving them a whole new spin. In their foundational book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King write:

…in narration, there may be times when you need to use a familiar, pet phrase—yes, a cliché—to summarize a complicated situation. But before going with the cliché, give some thought to the possibility of “turning” it, altering it slightly to render the phrasing less familiar. In a celebrated novel we edited, the writer used the phrase “they vanished into thin air” to avoid a lengthy, complicated explanation. We suggested a change to “they vanished into thick air,” which fit the poetic, steamy atmosphere of the European city in which the scene was set.

Long ago, I was impressed enough to remember the “turned” cliché (but not the name of the author, unfortunately) “she looked like a million bucks tax free.”

Dealing with the clichés in your work is often a simple, fun, and even empowering experience. Clichés need not be the dreaded bogeymen who haunt our work, but rather exciting and multi-faceted challenges that we can make work for us in many ways.

Somebody needed to tell Howard that, I think.

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Making Clichés Work in Your Writing

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Annie Lynn says

    I’ve enjoyed seeing how you keep getting better with your podcasts – your inflections were great this time and I quite enjoyed listening to the podcast.

    I have to admit whether I’m wrong or not that I’m one of those people who absolutely love cliche. 😉

  2. Thanks so much for listening!

    It’s true – people love cliches. But if you want to obtain recognition and memorability with your work, cliches aren’t going to get the job done, unfortunately.

  3. LOL we could be thinking of two different people…but I’m pretty sure I ran into this same person. =) Loved this post. You make me think every time. =)

  4. Since we frequent the same web venues, it’s rather likely that we *are* thinking of the same person! If I ever run across him again, I’ll have to thank him for the anecdote.

  5. I read your post and now I will go from here with a fresh mind working diligently as the tireless ants toil day after day. I will write each sentence in a new light like a child looking into another child’s toy chest.

  6. Shaddy, you’re a ray of sunshine – and that’s the truth, cliche or not! 😉

  7. Nice post, and so very helpful. I try to avoid cliche as much as possible, but I agree that some of them will inevitably crawl in. I’ve never thought about tweaking them slightly so they are different, but it’s a great idea.

  8. Excellent advice on cliches. I’ve had some caught in my writing and I didn’t even know they were cliches–that’s how easily they can slip in. Now I watch and try to create some of my own. Thanks!

  9. Cliches are sometimes easy to miss in your own writing because we are so used to hearing them, no alarm bells are set off when we read them. I really had to train my mind to pick them up and re-write using my own words. Actually, I think your ideas are served much better by crafting your own words than by using cliches. Great post, Katie. And good advice about re-working cliches to make them your own. I always thought that was cheating- guess not 🙂

    Oh and Katie, part two of your interview is up on my blog. Just thought I’d let you know. 🙂

  10. Forcing people to see common thoughts in uncommon ways is a lot of fun. The tough part is making people enjoy the times that you play with their heads.

    I did want to point out that the failing points of the example story weren’t given. While that is admirable in many cases, it made for a rough transition to the main thoughts of the post — at least in my eyes. Perhaps I am simply too much of a novice writer.

  11. I’ve always viewed cliches as almost a good thing, since they force me, even more than usual, to look beyond the obvious into creativity. They’re challenges that we get to rise to!

  12. Wow. I’ve heard of turning cliches on their heads, but tweaking them like the “thick air” and “river’s lifetime” (loved that, by the way – it really is thought-provoking) is just short of brilliant. People can understand what you’re talking about (when they might not with a brand new phrase) but they’ll have to think too. Love it!

  13. Once you start “turning” cliches, it’s actually a ton of fun – and a real creativity jumper.

  14. Once I was like that author. Now I don’t care, I care to write deep and coherent stories.

  15. That is the thing I, by far, had not understood. But your example of outlaw shed light to the whole notion of clichés to me. Now I get the concept much clearer in my mind and from now on, I will keep my eyes open to them 😀
    Thanks for yet another valueable lesson.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Have fun! “Turning” cliches can lead your stories in some interesting directions.

  16. thomas h cullen says

    Clichés are “more than” acceptable, let alone not a failure: reality is much more finite than we’d ever like to admit.

    The very existence of this website, with its being accessible to people all over.. This, amongst many many other examples demonstrate just why clichés are actually “more than” okay.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true that cliches are more prevalent than ever simply because global communication is more prevalent than ever.

  17. Oh, this was great and so true! Thank you, Katie! Is something to have in mind since, yes, it´s true we can´t avoid cliché.
    Already looking for the best wat to turn then around! 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes we come up with even better phrases when we’re consciously trying to avoid the old ways.

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  1. […] a buzzword, sure. But all that means it’s that it has essentially become a cliché. Often, clichés have deep meanings that everyone fails to see simply because we’re so used to not looking past the […]

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