author, creative writing, writing

Writing Clichés and How to Avoid Them

Clichés are something I’m still coming to terms with as a writer. I used to think that clichés were mostly common phrases;

“As blind as a bat.”
“In the nick of time!”
“You got up on the wrong side of the bed.”

And while these are examples of clichés, they’re not alone. A cliché is essentially anything that has become overused or unoriginal. And in writing, the last thing you want to do is fill your work with them.

What is a cliché?
As mentioned above, a cliché is something overused, something that doesn’t come from original thoughts. These often tend to slip into our vocabulary, and so we may end up writing them without realising it. A cliché can be a word choice or phrase, but also a character or story arc.

Clichéd phrases
As well as the phrases above here are some other examples:
“She took a deep breath.”
“He’d bitten off more than he could chew.”
“She was as fierce as a lion.”

So how do you avoid them? I’ve taken to looking at the cliché, and breaking down exactly what it is I’m trying to convey with those words. The trick is to then reword the phrase using your own original descriptions. So “she was as fierce as a lion” may become: “She handled injustice with strength, her anger painting blood-red blotches onto her cheeks. Her shoulders would lower as she straightened her spine, and when she let loose her opinion, you could convince yourself it was a roar that filled the room, rather than words.”
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Clichéd characters
Character clichés are very real, and come mainly in the form of stereotypes. The downtrodden underdog who rises to become the hero. The plain woman, with no distinct personality traits, but manages to transform into a beauty just in time to win her crushes heart. The bitter lonely old man who learns to accept love from, and give love to, his neighbors. These have all be done 100 times before.

So how do you avoid it? Essentially, your character arc can be whatever you choose it to be. But there has to be substance behind it, rather than things working out ‘just because…’ Entwine their back story, explore their motives, put them up against conflict and pitfalls. Their arc has to be believable and make sense.
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Clichéd plots
Plot clichés are similar to character clichés. Overused story lines. The protagonist is saved by an unlikely hero, who manages to save the day with no real issue. The love triangle, which somehow resolves, leaving all three people involved happy and satisfied, so no-one gets left out of the happy ending. These are too obvious and too boring. Your plot should contain surprising twists and turns, and break the boundaries* of what’s typically expected. Understanding clichés in plots can be a great way to lure readers into a false sense of expectation, only to be wowed by a clever new twist.
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When is it okay to use clichés
Using clichés can be done well, if they’re needed. A character may fit the role of a very specific stereotype at the start of the story, but surprise the reader by their actions as their arc progresses. But make sure you do this well. No surprises for the sake of surprises!

Another example, is dialogue. It’s common for people to talk with clichés in conversation. And certain people live by them. You might have an eccentric Aunt, or a philosophical stoner, who speak in clichés all the time. This can add humour and authenticity to certain characters and the way they talk, so don’t omit them if they serve a purpose.
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What are your thoughts on clichés in writing? Have you ever had any issues with them? Leave me a comment to let me know.

Until then,
Keep writing,

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* This is a cliche, woops!

49 thoughts on “Writing Clichés and How to Avoid Them”

  1. What a coincidence, just posted about cliches on my blog yesterday, bit tongue in cheek (to use a cliche). Thank you for this wider definition across character and plot devices. Some plots in particular do get a bit tired, though you wonder if there’s anything new on earth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One way to freshen a stock or cliches characters is to give them uncliched or unexpected traits. For example, the high school jock could be an opera lover. The philandering husband could be chasing a woman 15 years older. The cocktail waitress is an MIT grad student.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very informative and thoughtful post…must be reblogged!
    Personally I might well use some clichés as I am drawn to endings where the central characters have various level on contentment/happiness (though I am currently writing a series of novels, so some leeway).
    One cousin of cliché is repetition. (Guilty as charged). I know of one famous fantasy author one of whose major characters kept resorting to ‘chuckling’ ‘he chuckled here’ he chuckled there’….HOWEVER said writer could be excused because the character had many other traits and the whole series was so durn captivating.
    I guess it all comes down to whether you can swamp the occasional cliché/repetition in everything else going on in the book.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Narrative and engaging characters allows the reader to forgive a lot of ‘sins’.
        One SF writer’s dialogue ran
        ‘Comment’…..he said
        ‘Reply’….. she said.
        And so on, every piece of dialogue ended with ‘he/she said’
        The plots and tales were however very engaging, it was as if the writer had thought ‘The word ‘said’ is all I need in these tales’

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Most times I use them as a placeholder when I can’t think of better prose to convey what I have in mind. Then I go back and replace them with fresh eyes and better words. Sounds kind of crazy but it works for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Every time I write something, the following thought always pops into my head: “what if someone already came up with this?” And then I have to search through the internet to make sure the idea I thought was original, truly is original.

    Cliches are my worst nightmare, as well as for other writers too. The thing is, I remember one of my professors saying that whatever we come up with has probably been done at least once, and that it’s impossible to create a truly original idea. But most of us want to make an impact when we write something, and the thought of that being replaceable or imitated (or an imitation) is horrible. I’m glad you touched on this, because this crosses my mind often. And I’ll probably write a post on this too.

    Thanks for the awesome piece! Happy I found your blog today.


  6. My worst cliche’ that I’m aware of is giving hair and eye color to characters right up front in fiction. “This is not a driver’s license,” I tell myself, trying to figure out another way to tell the reader what they look like.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahh i see what you mean! I suppose these aren’t the traits we look at right away either, it’s more natural to notice the way a person dresses, or moves etc…I think we’re all guilty of this from time to time! X


  7. I tend to find I create characters as I go along in the first draft. By the end they have become people so I can go back and redraft what I have learnt about them from the beginning. Sometimes they really surprise me.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I think there’s a place for clichés. If you are writing dialogue especially, you need to reflect how people speak – and, sadly, we use them all the time! And outside of dialogue, just occasionally they are precisely what you need to say and how you need to say it. The greatest traps are not the words themselves, but character, plot etc. as you say.

    Liked by 1 person

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