The cliché is a mercurial beast. At times a loyal and faithful steed and at others a vicious predator that can tear apart even the most carefully constructed sentence. Frequently invisible to the author, they lie in wait to chase off readers and claim a work as their own. That’s why in this article I’ll be providing a hunter’s guide to the cliché, covering everything you need to know about where to look, what to look for, and what to do when you find them.
So you want to hunt clichés…
Clichés are essential and, at the same time, they can kill your work stone dead. It’s an incredibly unfair contradiction that threatens the otherwise fantastic writing of many authors. Expressing an idea through an instantly understandable, widely appreciated phrase is a triumph of human communication, so how can it cause such huge problems for the writer?
The main issue is that the cliché is a product of society, rather than the individual author. It’s a pre-existing phrase or idea that can be ‘plugged in’ to the author’s own work when needed. This makes it feel borrowed which, when a reader sees the author’s job as that of unique artistic creation, begins to look like either cheating or laziness.
This is both fair and unfair. It’s true that clichés can be the result of lazy writing – a way of communicating an idea without considering the best form of that idea within the context of the story. On the other hand, the cliché is inescapable. A cliché is just a way of expressing an idea that has become overused, but overuse comes from reliability. When a writer describes a shiver running down a character’s spine, it’s because that phrase is an effective shorthand for a particular kind of fear.
The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.
– Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!
Of course, expressing a complicated idea with a simple signifying image isn’t unique to the cliché – it’s something we do with every word in existence. Words themselves are products of society, and to expect an author to do something new and novel with every word is to ask for an unreadable book. So where’s the line? When does a common tool of communication become something that offends the reader?
Keeping to the shadows
Clichés become offensive at the same time they become important. Because the reader doesn’t consider the cliché to belong to the author, they tend to disapprove of their use at crucial moments. Clichés that are used in unimportant moments or to communicate simple ideas are generally overlooked by the reader – they get to remain the simple tools they should be – but once the author trains a spotlight on a cliché it turns into something else.
It’s at this point that a cliché becomes harmful, because it operates counter to the reader’s expectations. Subconsciously, the reader expects a unique and individual account of a notable situation. With a cliché, they instead get a generic description that could be applicable in any number of situations. There are two possible consequences – either the scene loses all impact, or the cliché is read as distractingly at odds with the moment. Either way, the reader identifies it as bad writing.
One of the more ignominious features of love was that you could only express it with clichés… it made you sound like a fraud at a time when you were blazing with sincerity.
– Lisa Kleypas, Crystal Cove
This is the key to hunting down clichés in your own work; asking ‘is this worthy of the moment?’ If you find yourself prone to clichés then you’re going to have to learn to ask this all the time. If you find yourself thinking ‘what moment?’ then the cliché is probably harmless, but if you reply with ‘but it describes what I mean perfectly!’ then the sentence is in danger. There’s no denying that clichés are often effective metaphors, but if they’re also noticeably cliché then that’s all the reader will see.
Finding clichés in your work
Clichés are a vital part of language, which means we often don’t know we’re using them. While ‘is this worthy of the moment?’ is a good test, it’s not foolproof, and most authors will find they need more specific guidelines based on the situation. Below are a few of the most common species of cliché hiding in your writing, and what to do about them.
‘A cliché’ is most often taken to mean a common phrase or idiom. Terms such as ‘ground-breaking’, ‘brave as a lion’, ‘frightened to death’, and ‘like a kid in a candy store’ are all recognizable examples. They’re also all examples of phrases that an author could get away with using, so long as they’re not put in the spotlight I mentioned earlier.
At its core, this type of cliché is just another form of metaphor or simile. It expresses a situation in a way which is, when divorced from common use, particularly evocative or colorful. The problem is that such compelling metaphors fall into common usage and their imagery becomes so familiar that it no longer has any impact. Linguist Guy Deutscher imagines a stream that flows from specific, useful meaning to generic uselessness:
As words drift downstream, they are bleached of their original vitality and turn into pale, lifeless terms for abstract concepts – the substance from which the structure of language is formed. And when at last the river sinks into the sea, these spent metaphors are deposited, layer after layer, and so the structure of language grows, as a reef of dead metaphors.
– Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language
Spotting dead metaphors is chiefly a matter of realizing that they are metaphors; the only sure way is to edit with the specific goal of identifying similes and metaphors in your work. Clichéd phrases and idioms might not seem like metaphors when you use them, but if you’re looking for the comparative imagery of metaphors then you should be able to pick them out. Once you do, ask if the imagery is justified and effective, and if not then replace it with something that is.
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Migratory dialogue is dialogue that flies in from outside the story and makes a nest in a character’s mouth. The most common form of migratory dialogue is the one-liner. This is the type of thing an action hero might say before dispatching an enemy – the writer believes it’s a cool or witty phrase, but since it doesn’t spring naturally from the context it can feel as if it’s migrated over from elsewhere.
The trouble with dialogue like this is that since it isn’t a product of the story, it tends to come from a more general idea of what makes a certain tone or mood. This idea is available to all writers, and since so many of them have borrowed from it these phrases have become cliché. When a character tells their lover ‘you broke my heart’, the line should be powerful, but the reader has already encountered it in a hundred different books and films.
The way to root out migratory dialogue is to recognize that all dialogue should flow from character. Try to question whether your dialogue is something this character would say in this moment, or whether it’s just something you want said that you can fit into their mouth.
Author Terry Pratchett subverts this type of cliché in The Fifth Elephant. Police officer Sam Vimes has just killed an aristocratic werewolf, tricking it into catching an explosive device. While the act is that of an action hero, Vimes is characterized as a dutiful man who has been forced to take a life.
There were a lot of things he could say. ‘Son of a bitch!’ would have been a good one. Or he could say, ‘Welcome to civilization!’ He could have said, ‘Laugh this one off!’ He might have said, ‘Fetch!’
But he didn’t, because if he had said any of those things then he’d have known that what he had just done was murder.
– Terry Pratchett, The Fifth Elephant
Here, Pratchett acknowledges and dismisses the migratory dialogue that might have attached itself to Vimes, creating a far more powerful moment by keeping his focus on the character. This logic holds whether it’s applied to action, romance or self-reflection – clichés occur when dialogue comes before character.
The stock character comes from a similar place as migratory dialogue. These characters are usually archetypes – a specific type of person that the reader will instantly recognize and understand: writers with drinking problems, hookers with a heart of gold and femmes fatal, to name just a few.
These characters are usually put in because the author hasn’t taken the time to flesh out a less clichéd character or because they’re a necessity of the story. This cliché has become embodied by the angry police chief.
The angry police chief is a character usually used to harass the protagonist, clearly stating the stakes and imposing a time limit on the story – “You’ve got 24 hours to crack this case or I’m taking your badge!”
Like any cliché, the angry police chief has been so widely used because they’re an effective device. They quickly provide a lot of potential conflict, and the reader instantly recognizes them and so doesn’t need to know much about their motivations or reasoning. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of character, but once the character archetype is recognized they become a figure of fun.
Thankfully it isn’t hard to avoid this – just ensure there’s more to them than their function in the story. If you’ve included a character because they make the plot work then spend some extra time fleshing them out, allowing them to grow past their ‘useful’ role. Not only will this stop them becoming a cliché, but it makes for a more real and engrossing world.
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Common Plot Points
There’s little to say about common plot points that I haven’t said about characters and dialogue. When the plot sticks to the context of the world and characters you’ve created, it will avoid cliché. Where you force the plot to include particular moments, or draw on commonly used events to establish your chosen tone, then clichés will slip in.
Again, clichés aren’t necessarily disastrous, but the more focus that falls on them, the more problematic they’ll become. Fantasy stories where the protagonists seek a fabled item need to do a lot to avoid feeling cliché, simply because readers learnt this storyline by rote a long time ago. Additionally, the fewer individual features of your story there are, the more apparent cliché will be. Some of the most brilliant stories ever told are structured around the same basic plot (see this article on ‘the monomyth’), but have rich enough worlds and complex enough characters that the clichés are buried beneath innovation.
Subverting the cliché for fun and profit
Once you’ve identified a cliché, there are different ways to deal with it. The easiest is to replace it with a less clichéd device that fulfills the same purpose, but you can also play with clichés to improve your story.
When an author identifies a cliché and subverts it, the generic device is turned into something special and the reader enjoys the experience. In 2013’s Iron Man 3, the titular hero sets about fighting a room full of goons. Having gained the upper hand, he points his sci-fi weapon at the last combatant, who throws up his hands, says “Honestly, I hate working here. They are so weird”, and runs away.
The moment completely subverts the cliché of faceless henchmen happy to die for their employer’s grand scheme. What makes this particularly effective is that this is a cliché which is still in common use, so the viewer may not even have identified it as unrealistic or generic until it’s subverted. The Disney movie Frozen offers a less comedic example, where the fairy tale ‘act of true love’ is redefined from a romantic to familial gesture (a subversion that takes even the characters themselves by surprise).
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Know when to hunt
My final piece of advice is to know when to go hunting. Clichéd plot points can be identified and altered when planning a story, but otherwise the best time to hunt out clichés is in the editing stage. Trying to spot clichés as you write them is frustrating and does more harm than good, so the best thing to do is read your work afterwards with the specific goal of identifying and neutralizing harmful clichés. It’s a two-stage process – ask both ‘is this a cliché?’ and ‘is it doing any harm?’ If so then change it, if not then still think about if you could make it more original, but recognize that some clichés are an essential part of our language.
For more writing tips, check out How to Stop Your Opinion Taking Center-stage in Your Writing or for great alternatives to clichéd writing try Five Experimental Novels That Will Inspire Any Writer.
Do you find it hard to pick out clichés in your own writing, or do you have some great advice for those who do? Let me know in the comments.
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