A few weeks ago, we discussed the myth of originality as it relates to writing a compelling story. While no story is truly original, something all unoriginal stories share is the use of clichés. Countless clichés in writing exist, but the savviest writers know how to snuff out trite sentences and overused character tropes.
This week, let’s focus on how to avoid clichés in writing. This article examines both common writing clichés to avoid and the signs that something is tritely written. We identify examples of clichés in writing, offer prompts to make clichés original, and help point out character clichés to avoid as well.
To begin, what is a cliché in writing?
What is a Cliché in Writing?
Cliché [klee • shay], noun:
- An idea expressed in already-written terms that gets a writer’s knickers in a twist.
- A way to get rejected by publishers that read between the lines.
- The turns of phrase found in stories that are simply diamonds in the rough.
- Ways of thinking and writing that are old as the hills.
If any of those definitions made you groan or roll your eyes, then you’ve just expressed why clichés don’t work. A cliché is something that most of us have heard; we use clichés in everyday speech, rough first drafts, and yes, in classic literature—when those sayings were fresh and new. In other words, clichés are already-written phrases that have lost their impact and originality.
clichés are already-written phrases that have lost their impact and originality.
Ignorance is bliss. An uphill battle. Judging a book by its cover. Because we’ve heard these clichés so many times, the images have lost their novelty, forcing readers to begrudgingly accept the information being communicated. If you need to express something quick in an email, perhaps a cliché will do, but throw too many overused phrases in a poem or story, and your reader will not turn the page.
Examples of clichés in writing abound in the English language. As a result, avoiding them is near-impossible. However, if you learn the most common clichés and how they’re structured, you’ll learn how to avoid clichés in writing.
Here’s some fun trivia: the word cliché is French, as you may have already guessed—it’s an onomatopoeia that means “click.” When French book publishers used printing presses, they formed words by pushing a stereotype, or pre-set type, into the page. The sound of the casting plate in the printing press made a clicking noise when it reproduced words and images—thus, it produced a cliché!
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Examples of Clichés in Writing
There are three types of clichés in writing: the figurative cliché, the character cliché, and the plot cliché. Each is insidious to both prose writers and poets, so take note of the similarities you see in these examples of clichés in writing.
Figurative Clichés to Avoid
The figurative cliché is the most common cliché. It refers to any turn-of-phrase or figure of speech that, though maybe once poetic, nowadays rings false and overdone. They are poetic trifles that have invaded everyday speech.
Some of these clichés have become colloquialisms. In fact, they’re so common as turns-of-phrase that we hardly register them as clichés; nonetheless, they don’t belong in scholarly or literary writing. Here are some clichés that you’re better off eschewing:
- Fit the bill
- Just the ticket
- Better late than never
- Down in the dumps
- End of the world
- Weeding things out
- A loose cannon
- Putting your eggs in one basket
- Back to the drawing board
- Salt in the wound / adding insult to injury
- An axe to grind
- Barking up the wrong tree
- At wit’s end
- Beating a dead horse
- Sharp as a tack
- An uphill battle
You can find many more examples of clichés in writing at this list of clichés.
What do all of these clichés have in common? They lack specificity. By speaking in generalized terms, these clichés paint broad statements about the nature of reality. Because of this vagueness, clichés cannot evoke strong images, emotional experiences, or new thoughts. Simply put: these are lazy turns of phrase.
Because they speak in generalized terms, figurative clichés cannot evoke strong images, emotional experiences, or new thoughts.
Character Clichés to Avoid in Writing
Fresh, evocative writing is often the cure for a cliché story. However, some clichés infect a story’s characters, not the words themselves.
The cliché character relies on tropes and stereotypes to function, as though every decision were filtered through a singular concept of humanness. This character lacks depth and reasoning; they don’t contribute a unique perspective or set of circumstances.
These are some common clichés to avoid in writing characters:
- Damsel in Distress: The character who needs someone to save them.
- Boy/Girl Next Door: The nice, boring, average, unobtrusive side character.
- Bad Boy: The character who’s hard on the outside but soft on the inside.
- Femme Fatale: The attractive, lethal lady.
- Tough Cop: The (usually male) detective or sleuth. He often works in The Force for the purpose of vengeance or for healing personal trauma.
- The Rebel: He hates society and doesn’t talk much, but he’s a lover at heart.
- The Gold-Hearted Street Walker: She sells her body to survive, but at her core, she’s pure and sinless.
- The Partier: He’s rich, loose-lipped, and loves anything involving sex or substances. But who does he want to be?
- The Plain Jane: She doesn’t know she’s beautiful, but he sees everything inside her.
- The Nice Guy: He’s soft-spoken, amiable, affable, always holds the door open for others, etc. If he wants something, it’s the one girl who isn’t in love with him.
- The Unlucky Hero(ine): Just to be clear, they hate being the protagonist.
- The Airy Professor: A brilliant mind behind a cluttered desk.
What’s wrong with these characters? We already know who they are before they tell us. A good character is multifaceted—with various motives, conflicts, interests, ideas, strengths, and weaknesses.
What’s wrong with these characters? We already know who they are before they tell us.
Additionally, most of these tropes are unnecessarily gendered; while gender-related struggles form a facet of a character’s inner life, it shouldn’t constitute the majority of their person. These gendered, underwritten, overdone characters are, universally, clichés to avoid in writing.
Plot Clichés to Avoid
A cliché character often accompanies a cliché plot. Plot clichés are plots with inevitable or expected conclusions—in other words, stories that we have already heard and learned from.
Nonetheless, these are writing clichés to avoid for good, so keep your plots from looking like one of these:
- Happily Ever After: Two people fight to be together, then go on to lead a life free of misery.
- Mad Science: An experiment goes awry, and science becomes a weapon of mass destruction.
- Love of Passion: A torrid romance ends in a spectacular display of love and death.
- Little Genius: A child prodigy struggles to find love because they’re fighting for destiny.
- The Chosen One: A resentful hero triumphs over a threat to humankind.
- Counting Sheep: Whatever happens, it was all a dream.
- Once Upon A Time: In a land far, far too fantastical, a story about magic and monsters.
- Monster House: The people who enter probably won’t exit.
Why avoid writing cliché plotlines? To be blunt, they’re lazy writing schematics. Every important detail has been pre-selected in these stories, preventing the story from saying anything new, useful, or interesting. Many of these clichés are starting points for stories: they might lead the writer towards a certain genre or focus, but they can’t stand as fully-fledged plots themselves, making them clichés to avoid in writing.
Luckily, cliché plots can be made original—as can cliché characters and other clichés in writing.
How to Make Clichés in Writing Original
clichés might plague you, but they certainly shouldn’t keep you from writing. It’s important to remember that clichés became cliché for a reason: when first written, they described something novel and beautiful to the audience. For the modern day, clichés simply need to be reconceptualized.
Most clichés can be made original, you just need to contextualize the cliché and give it new life. Here are some ideas for making clichés in writing original.
Most clichés can be made original, you just need to contextualize the cliché and give it new life.
1. Turn Vagueness into Specificity
Many clichés have become trite and overwritten because they fail to say anything specific. Specificity is a writer’s lifeblood—the more precise one’s language, the clearer an image one paints with words. If a cliché can be rewritten for the context of your own writing, you can create something new and interesting altogether.
Specificity is a writer’s lifeblood—the more precise one’s language, the clearer an image one paints with words.
For example, let’s take the cliché “at wit’s end.” These three words are rather nondescript. Where does a wit end, and in any case, where does a wit begin? How does a wit tire out, and how does it replenish? It’s a vague, empty phrase—and one that can be reinvigorated.
Additionally, the emotion this cliché evokes is overdone. “At wit’s end” feels rather weary and desperate, but what if it was humorous or lively or curious or confident?
Here are some different ways to rewrite the cliché, each with a different tone or message. Instead of saying “they were at wit’s end,” try:
- Humorous: a couple chimes short of being a cuckoo clock.
- Hopeful: turning failed ideas into new dreams.
- Adventurous: mining for ideas where boulders had formed.
- Suspicious: searching for ideas beneath old ideas, wondering where the solution disappeared to.
- Annoyed: ready to stick dynamite between their ears if it meant moving on.
You could even try to reframe this cliché into an entire story. One story that feels “at wit’s end” is the novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World by Haruki Murakami. Though not an explicit re-imagining of the phrase “at wit’s end,” Murakami writes his protagonist’s brain as a dying town—and it turns out to be a metaphor for the protagonist’s numbered days.
Or, just keep it simple, and say your character was out of ideas.
2. Build an Archetype
Inside all the character clichés to avoid, there’s an archetype waiting to develop. Archetypes are kind of like clichés, but with more substance: they’re a set of traits that a character needs for a certain story—a platform from which a fully-developed character springs.
Let’s take, for example, the cliché “Damsel in Distress.” What does she require? Most damsels are:
- Fair and lovely
- Caged (and desperate to escape)
- Waiting to be rescued by, presumably, true love
- Stereotypically feminine
- In line for the throne
These simple descriptions give us the damsel’s 1) physical traits, 2) personal motivations, and 3) fatal flaws. Those details are enough to start forming a character—though we’ll need much more information than this.
Moving towards a full archetype, our damsel in distress needs a plot. Yes, she’s not just the victim: the goal is to make her a full-fledged protagonist.
Traditionally, the damsel’s story begins and ends in the tower where she’s imprisoned. Rapunzel, Snow White, and Fiona all wait for a man’s heroism to rescue them. Let’s imagine something different: what if the damsel was the heroine of her own story?
In fact, what if she’s seeking revenge, like the Tough Cop, on her former captors? Or perhaps she grows up, leaves the crown, and becomes a brilliant Airy Professor? This is where clichés can actually improve your story: by mixing and matching different ideas and motives, the author is taking control of the story and its character, creating something original in the process.
Now, we can fully move away from the clichéd damsel and construct a new, previously-unwritten identity. This includes breaking down the original stereotypes: with a new plot, our damsel might benefit from being athletic, being skeptical of love, or having fraught relations with her father (the King). Finally, it involves giving her a name—what would you name her?
It’s safe to say that our character is no longer a Damsel, and that’s because we experiment with different plots and character traits to make her interesting and unique. By turning stereotypes into archetypes, writers can table their cliché characters for good.
3. Contextualize the Story
Throughout this article, we’ve argued that clichés lack wisdom and originality. Yet, most clichés were wise and original at one point, which is why many colloquialisms and adages in English are examples of clichés in writing.
Now, the English language evolves a lot. This is especially true for the past couple of centuries, as advancements in tech and literacy have allowed us to share ideas at accelerating speeds. As a result, certain clichés represent certain eras, and writers of historical fiction can use those clichés to contextualize the story.
Harper Lee does this in To Kill a Mockingbird. While Scout reflects on the state of Maycomb County during the Depression, she doesn’t state that she grew up in the 1930s; rather, Maycomb was recently told they had “nothing to fear but fear itself”—referring to the quote from F.D.R. By Lee’s time, that phrase had become heavily clichéd, but by invoking the spirit of an America just 30 years prior to TKAM’s publication, Lee gives the cliché new life. For the reader, it’s just as fresh as when America heard it during F.D.R.’s inauguration.
Funnily enough, the Harry Potter series does something similar with F.D.R.’s famous saying. Dumbledore says “fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself” to Harry, with strong historical weight. After all, F.D.R. is that same president who guided the U.S. through most of World War II, whereas Voldemort represents the discriminatory death machine of Nazi Germany. Although not a word-for-word use of the cliché, this moment brings fresh gravitas to F.D.R.’s sentiment.
4. Create a Writing Prompt
clichés make for great writing prompts. Because clichés are vague and nondescript, there’s ample creative space to write a story or poem in place of a trite idea.
Because clichés are vague and nondescript, there’s ample creative space to write a story or poem in place of a trite idea.
To turn a cliché into a writing prompt, all you need is a sense of curiosity. Asking questions and exploring the limits of a cliché will help turn it into something original.
For example, let’s turn the cliché “beating a dead horse” into some writing prompts. It’s such an odd phrase, I can’t help but ask questions, like:
- Is this just really heavy CPR?
- Can you make a dead horse speak?
- What would a dead horse say, if it could?
- Do dead horses bruise?
- Do dead horses draw the carriages to Hell, or to Heaven?
- Does beating a dead horse make it resurrect faster?
These questions are prompts in their own way. Stories and poems often respond to abstract questions, so we’re simply hijacking the cliché to create new question prompts.
With this in mind, an old cliché can be given new blood simply by asking the right questions, so if you’re stuck searching for writing ideas, try starting from cliché phrases.
5. Cut out the Clichés at Writers.com
Lastly, the expert eye of a writing instructor can help ensure you don’t riddle your writing with clichés. Our instructors are experts in slicing, revising, and revitalizing clichés, so if you’re looking for additional guidance or quality instruction, take a look at our upcoming courses.
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