As a writer, I run into these articles all the time: How to Avoid Cliches in Business Writing, Top Ten Most Common Cliches in Fantasy, Cliche Examples and How to Avoid Them, 681 Cliches to Avoid in Your Creative Writing.
There are so many of these articles on the internet, and while several are insightful and helpful, several have become just as cliched and predictable as the tropes they tell us to avoid. In writing this post today, I didn’t want to be just one more post telling you the same thing (saying a cliche is an overused phrase or theme, listing basic archetypes, etc.). Instead this post is a conglomerate of the best quotes and advice I’ve heard on cliches in writing, hopefully with some ideas and perspectives you haven’t encountered before.
As the moth is attracted to flame, less-than-vigilant writers are attracted to the bright light of intrinsically dramatic situations, where the drama is preassembled, ready to use—convenient. We’re drawn to clichés because they’re convenient. And convenience for writers—convenient plots, convenient characters, convenient coincidences, convenient settings or situations or strings of words—almost always spells doom.
–Peter Selgin, Writers Digest
Clichés once painted vivid pictures, but they’ve been so overused that their imagery has faded. For instance, the first time someone used the phrase out of the box it was a vivid metaphor to explain the idea of creative thinking. While being stuck in a box, we can’t come up with wild and crazy ideas. To be creative, we need to crawl out of that box. But now, the phrase out of the box is so tired, that nobody visualizes a box anymore. The imagery has completely faded, and that’s why it has become a cliché.
It’s a bit cliche, but you can’t go wrong by writing what you know. Even if you’re a horrible writer, your own knowledge and experience is unrivaled. Nobody knows what you know like you know what you know. The way you see things is pretty unique.
When writing, question any comparison or image you are about to use. Cliches often sneak in the barn door (that’s a cliche by the way) when we are trying to be descriptive. Is the phrase you’re about to use one that you’ve heard frequently in casual conversation, newscasts, and advertising? If so, it is probably a cliche or on it’s way there. Instead of using stock phrases and images, be creative.
–University of Richmond Writing Center
While you may be able to get away with tired tropes in certain circumstances, the fact of the matter is that fantasy readers are a die-hard, dedicated, well-read bunch. The majority of fantasy fans have read widely within the genre, meaning that they’ve practically seen it all when it comes to typical fantasy standbys.
Most of the time, if a fantasy reader picks up a novel that adds nothing new to the already well-established genre, they’ll do one of three things: drop it immediately, forget about it entirely, or review it poorly – none of which are good outcomes for authors trying to find an audience.
–Claire Bradshaw, B.A.
A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’; (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word … But in between those two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.
Every oak tree is gnarled.
Sometimes, so are the faces and hands of old, white men.
Every gentle wave is lapping upon the shore. Every mountain town is nestled in a valley, every chimney produces curled rings of smoke.
Every politician is slick, every banker is soulless. Journalists are moral and hardworking. Teachers are worn out. Every woman is unsatisfied, every man is flippant. Mothers are worn out too, but fathers are emotionless. Every woman has jet-black tresses, and every day starts with bitter coffee (which might also be scorching) and ends with whiskey. Who drinks whiskey? That old, white man with ice that clinks.
Clinks? Chinks? Tinkles?
In the city, there are cars honking, lights blinking, and many things are incessant—noise, screams, cries. Oh, and blaring lights. Lots of blaring lights that sometimes flicker.
The country has chirping crickets and waving grass. Parched earth abounds, there is lots and lots and lots of dust. The moon is always bathing fountains, statues and white shoulders lucky enough to be right under it. Fog is thick or dense, sometimes both. Thunderstorms rage while thunder cracks. Lightning illuminates—what, I don’t know. The sun shines down, as opposed to up, and clouds really don’t do anything except float by. And occasionally they don’t exist at all.
Waves crash. Cars don’t, unless brakes are slammed or heard to screech first.
Tears roll down cheeks, and faces break into smiles while the eyes always crinkle when they aren’t sparkling or flashing. Hair shines or curls, always curls. People are clad in clothing, never just clothed in it. Necklaces dangle, and bracelets chink. Arms are thick and strong, and eyes meet more than people.
Thoughts race or sometimes pervade while anger boils. Chills run up or down spines, depending on where you live, and ideas aren’t just clear, they are crystal clear.
What is crystal? It’s what you drink your whiskey in. With the ice that clinks.
Things are notably pale, thick, greasy, cold, strong and dry, which they don’t need to be. If it’s a pillow, we know it’s soft. Ditto Coke and cold. Words like eat and run and speak are passed over for gobbled and raced and exclaimed. People can’t just hold, they have to clasp. They can’t cry, they have to sob, and they can’t stop, they have to come to a halt.
I’m not tired, I’m fatigued. I’m not messy, I’m disheveled. I’m not sad, I’m despondent.
Ah, whatever. At least I’m not gasping for breath or not sleeping a wink over the use of clichés. Every writer falls for them, at some time or another.
Every oak tree is gnarled. Especially this one.
–Ellen Vrana, Quora