Avoid Cliches like the Plague

Avoid cliches like the plague. That’s one of the “rules” of writing. I’m going to take a deeper look at this rule today in my periodic series on “the Rules of Writing.”


Using cliches is a piece of cake. Over using them is as easy as falling off a log. Poor use of a cliche can really get up your nose in no time flat. But a good one well placed makes everything crystal clear.


Let’s take a closer look and why that happens. First a definition of cliche from Dictionary.com:


A sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse.


We can see in this definition that overuse is part of being a cliche, as is the lack of originality. In other words cliches started their lives as colorful descriptions that got picked up and used and used and used. From here, it’s really easy to see why one should avoid using them – they are old and dead.


I would argue that there isn’t a complete lack of impact (as the definition suggests) but rather a change of it. The impact doesn’t come from wit, as it did when the cliche was first thought up, but from history. A cliche carries with it the weight of all that overuse that has turned it from a colorful phrase into a cliche. Sometime, that weight is just what you are looking for.


Cliches are usually best placed in the mouths of your characters. Quite simply because that is where we encounter them in real life. People speak in cliches far more frequently than we might imagine.


“Can you do this thing?”

“Piece of cake.”


It’s the way we talk. So let your characters talk that way too.


There is a cultural component to cliches as well. The cliche “falling off a log” would be more relevant in logging camp than a palace. Not many royals come close enough to logs to fall off them. Thinking that something easy is “a piece of cake” is the sentiment of someone who doesn’t bake a lot of cakes, but eats them. If you “ain’t just whistling Dixie” you’re probably from the American South.


A well placed Cliche in the mouth of one of your characters can tell your readers a lot about that character without having to spell it all out. I’ve seen some writers have fun with a character who speaks almost exclusively in cliches. All the more fun when the other characters are seen moaning and groaning about it.


Cliches aren’t entirely banned from the narrative either. They just come with a big yellow “CAUTION” sticker attached. When you use a cliche do it deliberately. Use it with full knowledge of the impact it will have on your readers. Ask yourself is it really the most effective way to say what you are trying to say? Will its strength overcome its overuse? Most importantly, use them sparingly. Remember that the greatest weakness of a cliche is that it has been over used – by way too many people. Treat it with the respect it is due as a witty, colorful phrase. Use it in a new, but appropriate, way.


“Getting the message to the princess was a piece of cake. He hid the ring under her dessert. All he had to worry about was making sure that piece was set in front of her. She’d have to worry about keeping it secret from her father.”

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