the Snowball Effect
We’ve all been told not to use them, but do you actually know why or how? In a way, clichés have a snowball effect. They start out as catchy phrases that become easy-to-remember expressions. Those, in turn, get repeated by more and more people until the original intent is all but forgotten, swallowed up by triteness.
Good writers are intentional with their language choices. Be careful to avoid writing that causes distractions by being too cliché. Remember those easily-snowballed phrases? Don’t be lazy! Use your words intentionally, and be aware of which phrases and concepts have been overused.
Using fresh language takes practice, but it’s definitely doable. You’ll need to know what clichés look like, why they’re problematic, and what you can be doing to keep your writing original and honest.
Types of Clichés
Let’s start with a look at what constitutes a cliché. A cliché is, by simplest definition, an expression or idea that is no longer fresh or original. As a result, it may seem boring or trite. A cliché could be a phrase, a sentence, or a way of looking at something—even an action. The list goes on and on, but let’s just look at a few common examples.
Similes and Metaphors
Similes and metaphors are comparisons of two unlike things that emphasize an aspect of one that the reader might not have otherwise noticed. For example, a simile might be a sentence like “Her face shone like the sun,” or “It moved as quick as a flash.” A metaphor could look like this reaction to an attractive but hostile person: “The rose has thorns!” Many similes and metaphors have been used so often that they are now cliché. Be sparing with common comparisons unless they truly add relevant information to a sentence.
Idioms are expressions that are unique to a language or dialect in expressing something that doesn’t quite match the literal meaning of the words used. For example, in English we say things like “Break a leg!” to wish someone luck or “They’re going bananas” to mean someone is acting crazy. Idioms almost have to be clichés in the sense that they need to be commonly-known for anyone to understand them, but that doesn’t mean you should overuse them. Consider the purpose and audience of your writing to know which idioms would or wouldn’t be appropriate.
Often, the same words get used over and over to describe things like settings or physical appearances. For example, someone might have a “piercing gaze,” or a moment might “seem to last an eternity.” These are clichés. Once in a while, they might be accurate, but make sure they’re an honest representation of what’s actually going on in your scene. Don’t just add them in because they sound impressive.
When a scene depicts high emotions, we often see sentences like “His stomach dropped,” or “Her heart lept into her throat.” These clichés are sometimes accurate—after all, they started out as honest descriptions—but is that truly the physical reaction your character is having? Do you know what those expressions mean? Sometimes, it’s more efficient and less distracting to show the emotions through internal thoughts or feelings.
In fiction or narrative nonfiction, there are certain actions that sneak their way into conversations and reactions on a frequent basis. For example, my own characters tend to nod, shrug, and frown in the middle of conversations—and it gets old pretty quickly. The words themselves aren’t cliché, but their use in a written dialogue definitely can be! Check your character actions for anything that comes too easily. If it’s something you fall back on all the time, it might also be cliché.
There are probably some clichés that others would have added to this list, and there may even be a few here that some people wouldn’t have added. This post didn’t even touch on tropes in fiction! The rule of thumb in recognizing a cliché is to ask yourself if something is original and fresh or if it’s been overused. When in doubt, get a second opinion. We’ve all read different things and noticed different overused expressions.
Why Clichés Are Problems (and Why They Sometimes Aren’t)
A lot of phrases and expressions are common to our usage of English. So what’s the big deal with ones that are common enough to be clichés? Doesn’t that just mean they’re tried and true? Sometimes, this is true, and there’s a place to use them. More often than not, though, use has become overuse, which can have a negative impact on your writing.
When you’re trying to think of words to write, clichés can come to mind more readily than what you really want to say. The problem is, when you accept them, you’re creating a two-fold distraction for your readers.
First, the clichés can distract from what’s going on in a scene by filling it with phrases your reader will just gloss over. By meaning very little, they detract meaning from the passage. Second, clichés can distract from a scene by sounding trite or cheesy. This will pull the reader away from the story by calling attention to the words used instead of the picture they should be painting.
There is no rule saying you can never use a cliché. In fact, there are some situations where they’re the best choice for a scene.
First, use them where your perspective character would use them. If they truly see certain things through a cliché lens, be honest in reporting their thoughts. Second, if a character would use one in dialogue, go ahead and include it—just make sure that it’s clearly the character’s choice, not your oversight, prompting that inclusion.
Finally, if a specific phrase or expression is the most accurate, non-awkward way of wording something, just use it. It will be better than playing linguistic Twister in an attempt to be too original and unique!
Fixing Clichés through Honest Perspective
“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” –C.S. Lewis
If you tend to slip into clichés in your writing, it’s time to learn to override them! Don’t get stuck with unoriginal language, and don’t get stuck trying too hard to be original. It’s all about how you and your characters perceive the world.
Pay attention to how you perceive the world around you. What words do you use in your own head when thinking about people, places, events, and feelings? What expressions do you use when talking with others? If you can stay true to your own voice when writing, your manuscript will be stronger for it. You won’t have to fight to be fresh and original; you’ll be yourself no matter what.
The second part of an honest perspective is in your characters. What do they want to say? How do they see the world around them? For your POV characters, this will come across in the narrative of the story itself. For all other characters, it should be obvious in their actions and dialogue. You don’t have to sculpt anything too fancy. Just draw upon the ways in which you think and see the world to help inspire how they see it. Make their voice a part of you, and you’ll be able to write in it without leaning on others’ tired language and clichés.
Helping Language Fall into Place
If you do find clichés in your writing, it’s not the end of the world. As you revise your manuscript, mark those expressions and consider what would be more accurate to your POV character’s voice (or your own in nonfiction). Don’t try to aim for unique wording; aim instead for honesty.
If you’re not sure whether your writing is cliché or how to fix it if it is, ask a friend or other reader for help. Sometimes, having fresh eyes on your words is the best way to find fresh ways to use your words.
Clichés are easy to use, but avoiding them doesn’t have to be! When you keep an honest perspective, your language will reflect your perceptions and those of your characters rather than the expressions that have already been used too much.
Finally, I’ll leave you with this parting cliché: practice really does makes perfect.