What to do about clichés: advice from Dr Kim
The problem with clichés is that they are often not noticeable: writers think they’d know one because it’s obvious: “she thanked her lucky stars”; “he had a heart of gold”. They’d never use one of those tired old expressions! But new clichés are being made all the time: “dealt a savage blow”, “sorely mistaken”, “grim determination”, “dripping with sarcasm”. All of these are clichés, and all of them are in frequent use in fiction. The faster you write, the more likely you are to reach for a cliché as a shortcut. Readers don’t engage with clichés, and too many can make writing seem tired and boring. Remember though, that clichés are overused because they work well. That is, most clichés were originally very good ideas. But like a rock being rolled around in the sea, it eventually loses its texture and becomes smooth (which is why they often go unnoticed).
- First, train yourself to identify a cliché. It’s usually figurative. For example, “sorely mistaken”: mistakes are not usually physically painful so this adds the idea of metaphorical physical pain to a mistake. It’s a way of intensifying the mistaken-ness. Often the best way to identify a cliché, though, is simply to ask yourself if this collection of words has appeared together in this order many times before.
- It can help to think back to the original sentiment of the cliché. Ask yourself, what was originally interesting or fresh about it? Can you write that idea back in, a different way? eg. “glowing reviews” — the idea is that the reviews contain so much praise they emit light. Can you reconfigure? “Reviews bright enough to read by”?
- Or perhaps you don’t need the cliché at all, you might not want to draw that much attention to something which is a side detail: “good reviews” or “excellent reviews” can work just fine. So another option is to scale the cliché back to literality.
- Remember too, that some clichés are so time-honoured that they can continue in use and bother few people; they’ve become almost as invisible as if they were literal. I’ve yet to find a better way to say “burst into tears” or “her heart sank”.
- Also, sometimes characters talk in clichés. An unimaginative character may very well say “for the umpteenth time”, and it’s appropriate to characterise them in this manner.
- It’s useful to think of clichés as bandaids over gaps where there something specific should have been written. When you find one, ask yourself, “What am I reallytrying to say here?”
Clichés aren’t an evil in themselves, but a flag that something evil might be going on. If you find one, consider it carefully. If it’s not pulling its weight in your writing, then do something about it.
– Dr Kim