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When Are Cliches Safe To Use? -- by Angela Ackerman

We hear tons of advice saying that clichés should be avoided, so I thought I'd stroll over to the other side of the literary fence and look at when it's actually okay to use them.

Yes, you heard me--sometimes clichés can be used and not leave you feeling dirty afterwards. Hey would I lie to you?

Clichés... Dialogue:

If Granny May is the kind of gal to tell her young ins, "The early bird gets the worm," on the first wake up call but then screams, "Get down here or I'll tan your hide till it's black and blue!" on the third one, feel free to show it. Just make sure it works--this type of clichéd 'isms' can be done on purpose to show the character's tendency to fall back on these adages. It's part of who they are.


--If all your characters do this, then you've got problems.

--If your hip teen is telling her friends the early bird catches the worm and it isn't tongue-in-cheek, you've got problems.

Bottom line:

To work, clichéd dialogue has to be done with intent and backed by strong characterization. The clichéd 'isms' should feel like natural dialogue, personal to the speaker. Thoughts:

Similar to dialogue, some characters may be predispositioned to 'think' in clichés, perhaps as a result of how/when they grew up, or to show prejudice or bigotry. If they see a street person, they might think of him as a 'no-good bum'. A drug dealer might be 'a waste of good air'. Maybe they observe that the caked-on make up a friend is wearing for ladies night looks like Tammy Faye Baker was her beautician.

Bottom line:

To work, the cliché thoughts need to be a valid part of the characterization, not sloppy/lazy writing.


Your character can think in clichés if it is believable and effective for them to do so. You can't. Make sure your narration/description isn't cliché. Plot:

There is a loose belief that there are seven basic plots that all stories fall under (Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rebirth). Does this mean that ultimately no matter what story we come up with, it's been done before? Some would say Yes. I say go ahead and write the story as uniquely as you can and don't worry about who's done what before you.


Keep perspective in check. If you've just finished reading Stephanie Meyer's Twilight books and are frothing to create your own vampire series based on a sect of vampires living at peace with society yet at odds with others of their kind and the heroine is new to town, clumsy and requires constant saving...well, do I really have to tell you to back away from the keyboard?

Bottom line:

It's okay to write about a topic that's been covered before. Just make sure the story is your own. Description:

Clichés can be justified when it's important to get something across to the reader quickly that is difficult to describe accurately. On rare occasions, the best choice may be a familiar wording that's instantly recognizable.


This is a last resort only. With some thought, you'll almost always find a fresh way to describe what you need to, and still make it clear to the reader.

Bottom Line:

An example where this might apply would be in conveying a type of technology, a complicated procedure or how something works to the reader. Sometimes a recognizable expression or comparison is more prudent than paragraphs of explanation when the pace of the story or reader understanding is at stake.

Don't be fooled, though. Just because something is hard to describe doesn't mean you should resort to clichés. One example is showing a shiver of fear. This occurs often in books as it's a body's natural reaction to this emotion. We've all read about shivers racing/tingling up the spine, down the spine, along the spine...writers use these images because the sensation is accurate, and creates immediate recognition with the reader.

Even something as overused as this can be freshened by changing the verb (charged, stampeded, trampled), losing the spine reference all together or by using an effective simile that mimics the sensation of something creeping over something else: a spider flashing across exposed skin, ants walking along a branch, etc.

Final Thoughts

If you do feel a cliché is justified, then use your best judgement on what type to use, and what you can get away with. There are levels of cliché, after all. You've got overused phrases like fluttering curtains, rosy cheeks, a flush of pleasure. Then there's the more annoying stupid jocks, the nosy mother-in-law or ugh, the geeky smart girl who, with the aid of a makeover, is suddenly super hot. Worse still are trysts between boss and secretary to spice up a book yet have no bearing on plot or the simple farm boy who is happy with his lot in life suddenly must go on a quest to save the world. Lets face it, some of these should scream, "Run away! Run away!" to the writer and be avoided at all costs.

ANGELA ACKERMAN is a CC member and Moderator, as well as a co-author of the bestselling writing guide, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide To Character Expression. When she isn't dreaming up cereal monsters or writing about Greek Mythology pychopaths, she blogs at The Bookshelf Muse, a description hub for writers and teachers.

Posted by Angela Ackerman 9 Sep 2013 at 00:42
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Responses to this blog

Upnorth 10 Sep 2013 at 17:35  
I think it's good to point out that cliches can be a good way to save space when describing something. And they can also be a good way to give the narration texture, to make certain moments low-key so that other moments stand out more.
Blandcorp 11 Sep 2013 at 07:14  
It seems to me a good writing style should not call too much attention to its own contrivance. That should be a better guideline than "avoid cliches".

Yes, if a writer keeps using the same turns of phrase over and over again, a reader might notice the limited vocab/language usage ability and get knocked out of the story.

On the other hand, trying to "freshen up" something so perfectly descriptive as "shiver of fear" is just trying too hard, therefore contrived. As long as shivers of fear aren't stapled to every page, things should be fine. And if they are, it's not the cliche that's the problem. It's the overuse.

Evensong 13 Sep 2013 at 17:10  
This quote from struck me as relevant to this discussion:

You've seen this somewhere before?
Merriam-Webster gives a definition of "trope" as a "figure of speech." In storytelling, a trope is just that ? a conceptual figure of speech, a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.
Above all, a trope is a convention. It can be a plot trick, a setup, a narrative structure, a character type, a linguistic idiom... you know it when you see it. Tropes are not inherently disruptive to a story; however, when the trope itself becomes intrusive, distracting the viewer rather than serving as shorthand, it has become a clich?.
I really like the idea of tropes as shorthand for something with which you can reasonably expect your audience to be familiar—and with the difference between "trope" and "cliche" being that one functions as shorthand and advances the writer's purpose, while the other distracts from it.
Owllady 13 Sep 2013 at 17:43  
Like a lot of things related to writing, cliches can be used in moderation, when it's appropriate. Because the use of cliches can be a touchy subject for writers (and many readers), I think it helps tremendously to have critiquers read over your chapters especially if you've used a few cliches. They'll give you an idea of whether or not the cliches you've used are provoking the reaction you want.

As Angela points out here, there can be instances where a character tosses a few cliches around but it's appropriate for them. Sometimes you might want to create a negative impression of a character and one way to do that is through the language that character uses. Overused, tired expressions could fit. Not everybody will like it, but many will if you're careful how you do it.
Momzilla 17 Sep 2013 at 05:06  
I agree, Blandcorp—some things, like shivers, can become mechanical if they are broken down too much into specifics, and can become flowery if a person tries too hard to make the description metaphorical. I think comparisons can work, for sure, but a person really needs to be careful not to go too far from the basics.

Owllady, agreed! Having other people look over our work is super helpful to determine if the cliches fit or not. And I think there are some cliches that are more forgiving than others.

Evensong, that's a good way to put it.

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