Cliché’s in Writing: Can they be avoided?
Clichés, we’re all guilty of having used them at some time or another. You know–phrases such as; selling like hotcakes, nipped in the bud, in the light of day, or what goes around comes around. Clichés are used more than we realize in everyday rhetoric, these metaphors, similes, and modifiers often help us to describe or convey a particular point. The fact is; clichés can be darned useful at times. But how does the use of clichés play out in our own writing–are they to be avoided at all cost? Is it even possible?
How many times have you read a book and rolled your eyes at the use of a cheesy cliché? ‘Jane decided there was no sense in crying over spilled milk…’ (Insert eye roll here). Personally, I don’t want to see clichéd phrases in stories I read–it cheapens it somehow. But whereas clichés might be advantageous to use in real life dialogue, I believe using them in our writing can be ‘the kiss of death’. Yes, that was a cliché 🙂
By definition; a cliché is described as a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea that has lost originality and impact by overuse (1). But clichés aren’t just limited to sayings; they also pertain to depictions and actions. For example, some common stereotypes are that of the starving artist, that of the bully who was an abuse victim himself, or that of the dumb blonde. As with most stereotypes and generalizations, there might be instances of commonality, but these examples are not in any way inclusive of all artists, bullies or blondes. On the contrary, not all artists are down on their luck and barely eking out a living, nor have all bullies been victims of abuse; they may just be jerks despite a harmonious upbringing, and we know for certain that not all blondes are air-headed or vacant.
So how do we avoid using clichés in writing?
I admit to having been guilty of using clichés; albeit unconsciously, in my own writing. In fact, during the revisions of my book I came across quite a few of them. I think it’s natural to fall back on phrases and expressions that we’ve grown so used to hearing on a regular basis; many of them are ingrained in us. But the problem with clichés is that they lack genuine detail—which only serves to make our stories less convincing and interesting. Ideally, we should train ourselves away from using clichés altogether; but I don’t believe clichés can be avoided entirely. In truth, I believe a well-placed cliché can serve to interject an instance of irony, snarkiness, humor, or even a sardonic edge to a plot. So it’s not really a case of avoiding them at all cost (a cliché in itself), but more about knowing when they work. The qualifier to this is that they should be used very sparingly and strategically. Remember, no one wants to read a story where there’s an annoyingly cheesy cliché on every other page.
Here are some tips that may be helpful—tricks I use to avoid cliches in my own writing.
- Always be original in your thoughts and anecdotes; if you’ve heard the expression many times before, delete it. Use your thesaurus for alternative words, but don’t rely on it completely.
- Rewrite and revise; you’ll need to go over your manuscript with a critical eye many times to catch those clichés—I know I did. Circle or highlight spotted clichés to keep track or to gauge the frequency in which you’re falling back on them.
- Avoid stereotypical themes. Again, the starving artist scenario is an example of this. Perhaps instead, the artist is just an everyday working person whose challenge is in getting their work commissioned or showcased. They don’t have to be one cracker away from starvation or homelessness, or a martyr for their passion.
- Avoid predictability. Don’t have your heroine go “check out” the noise that goes bump in the night (another cliché)—only to be hit over the head by her crazy ex or stalker. If the heroine hears a noise, she should be dialing 911 or finding the closest weapon and hiding! Keep things realistic.
- A little drama is always good in a plot—as it can serve to create tension as well as contention between characters. But melodrama, histrionics, and overt sentimentality should be avoided at all cost. There’s nothing more annoying than a heroine who’s prone to fits of weeping or storming out of a scene in anger or with hurt feelings. Likewise, there’s nothing more predictable than a hero who’s always obvious in his heroism—or a villain who’s consummately evil. Think outside the box and do the exact opposite. For example, have your hero actually turn out to be the villain in your plot.
- Strive for sincerity and authenticity. Don’t mimic someone else’s plot—you know the trends that seem to dominate genres such as romance or sci-fi. Every story has likely been done a thousand times before, but what makes us unique as people also serves to make our stories unique. Avoid cookie-cutter stories by drawing on your own experiences, knowledge, and passions.
Remember, clichés are convenient hacks that we tend to fall back on instead of thinking outside the box. There is no story that hasn’t been told—they’ve all been done before, so completely avoiding clichés in writing is likely impossible. However, by expanding our knowledge and vernacular, we can keep our own stories from falling into the stereotypical and run of the mill pit of doom.
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(1). Dictionary.com: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/cliche
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