True story: Sometime last year, I encountered a man named Howard (name changed to protect the not-so-innocent) who had written a fantasy novel that he couldn’t seem to sell. And he just couldn’t understand it. “My work is 100-percent cliché free! I hate, loathe, and despise clichés. I’ve scoured my work and eliminated every single cliché. This is the most original story ever written!”
Um, can anyone say “delusional”?
This poor guy obviously didn’t understand the pervasive power of clichés anywhere near as well as he thought he did. The sad fact is that, with thousands of clichés roaming about the vast landscape of the English language, it’s pretty darn near impossible to write a story without clichés. This is a fact. It’s also a fact that clichés are pretty much the kiss of death (pardon the, well… you know) in fiction. So how can authors like you and me and poor Howard go about reconciling this dichotomy?
It’s important to understand that clichés only become clichés because they originated as powerful statements that quickly spiraled into wild popularity. In other words, being the author of a cliché is high praise. It means you’ve written a witty, pithy, and eye-opening statement that helps bring your point alive for other people. “Penny for your thoughts,” “best thing since sliced bread,” “chip off the old block, and “bull in a china shop” are all examples of great writing… the first time around, anyway. Ironically, it was their own popularity that eventually destroyed their effectiveness.
People, writers included, use clichés without even thinking. They’re familiar, easily understood concepts. But they’re also flat. They’re like a bright red balloon turned limp after the helium ran out. The brilliance is gone. And no self-respecting writer wants to use a lackluster phrase in his writing. The first (and, hopefully, most obvious) tactic for eradicating clichés is to simply keep your eyes open and blast ‘em wherever you spot them crawling about in your work. Despite our friend Howard’s claims, chances are extremely slim that you’ll spot them all. But if you can squash the ones you see, you’ll be way ahead of the ball game.
Once all the obvious clichés are gone, you get the fun of replacing them with your own sparkling gems. Getting rid of clichés forces you to dig deeper and look beyond the obvious in your prose—and, hopefully, allow your readers to see things in a new light. Instead of writing the old familiar “not in a million years,” what about replacing it with the more thought-provoking “not in a river’s lifetime,” as I did in A Man Called Outlaw?
Considering how brilliant many clichés are, it seems a shame to have to obliterate them. And, in fact, we don’t always have to. Notwithstanding Howard’s ranting to the opposite, there are occasions when you can not only get away with clichés, but actually make them work for you by giving them a whole new spin. In their foundational book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King write:
…in narration, there may be times when you need to use a familiar, pet phrase—yes, a cliché—to summarize a complicated situation. But before going with the cliché, give some thought to the possibility of “turning” it, altering it slightly to render the phrasing less familiar. In a celebrated novel we edited, the writer used the phrase “they vanished into thin air” to avoid a lengthy, complicated explanation. We suggested a change to “they vanished into thick air,” which fit the poetic, steamy atmosphere of the European city in which the scene was set.
Long ago, I was impressed enough to remember the “turned” cliché (but not the name of the author, unfortunately) “she looked like a million bucks tax free.” Dealing with the clichés in your work is often a simple, fun, and even empowering experience. Clichés need not be the dreaded bogeymen who haunt our work, but rather exciting and multi-faceted challenges that we can make work for us in many ways.
Somebody needed to tell Howard that, I think.