Avoiding The Use of Clichés

Hey, SE Readers. Joan here today. In a recent post, I wrote about overusing similes and metaphors. Today I’m going to talk about other overused phrases in writing—clichés. Unlike similes and metaphors, which can be skillfully used, we should avoid clichés like the plague.

So, what is a cliché? They are trite, stereotyped expressions, sentences, or phrases that usually express a popular thought or idea. However, these expressions have been overused to the extent they have lost their original meaning or novelty.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Describing time:

  • At the speed of light
  • Lasted an eternity

Describing people or things:

  • As clever as a fox
  • As old as the hills

Sentiments:

  • Frightened to death
  • Scared out of my wits

General

  • I’m like a kid in a candy store
  • The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

Why should we avoid them? Using clichés can send the reader a message you lack originality or skills. Why would someone want to read something that has been written countless times? When a book is sprinkled with these overused and redundant phrases, it can drive readers away.

Clichés can give the impression you’re a lazy writer. I’m going back to that old expression, “show, don’t tell.” (That in itself can become a cliché.) Whenever possible, show your reader a scene, an emotion, a reaction. Don’t tell them.

Yes, showing takes more words. Let’s look at an example from one of the above clichés.

“Noah Macdonald was as old as the hills.” Okay, that tells me the person is probably over the age of eighty. However, another reader might think of someone in their nineties or even a centenarian. A teenager might think anyone over the age of thirty is old!

Instead, we can say something like this: Noah Macdonald leaned heavily on his cane as he shuffled along the sidewalk. His face was creased with wrinkles, and the thin skin of his forearms was marked by numerous bruises. Iron gray hair… While I could (and should) write this description better, you get the idea.

A third reason for avoiding the use of clichés is they have lost their meaning or novelty as stated in the definition.

“Lasted an eternity.” None of us have lived into eternity. How would we know something has lasted that long?

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” What are we really saying? Can your reader visualize what you’re trying to say or will they be too focused on seeing an apple lying on the ground?

Again, show me. Don’t tell me.

I purposely used a cliché on in my opening paragraph. “Avoid like the plague.” I always assumed the saying came about because of the Bubonic plague when the “Black Death” spread across Europe in the fourteenth century.

But would you believe it originated much earlier? The original quote was from St. Jerome (a.d. 345- 420). He said, “Avoid, as you would the plague, a clergyman who is also a man of business.” You can see this one has been widely overused.

One exception when avoiding clichés in fiction. It’s okay to use them sparingly in dialogue. We often use clichés in our speech. Having a character who says one now and then can give the reader insight the character’s personality.

Do you use clichés in your writing? If so, how and why? As a reader, do they distract you? Share in the comments.

46 thoughts on “Avoiding The Use of Clichés

  1. Great article, Joan. It’s a helpful reminder. Thank you! 😀 For the cliché, ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ maybe I could write, The kid’s features and mannerisms were so much like his father’s he could’ve been a clone. How’s that? :/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think we all use cliches from time to time but I think they should be used very sparingly. I love your example of how you changed “old as the hills.” It shows how much better writing can be by showing.

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. I think I use them because it’s easier to, and I don’t feel like being original all the time. As a reader, however, they definitely bother me and I wouldn’t want to feel the same when reading my own works. It seems lazy, immature, inauthentic and massed-produced to use cliches in writing, although as a writer who often does so I understand the temptation

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  6. This article is a great reminder to me to show instead of tell, with which I have struggled. I use plenty of cliches, from “pouring rain” to leyes welled up with tears,” but this post inspired me to write more creatively and continue to practice showing instead of telling

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  7. Wonderful post. I also feel they can be used in dialog. I have a future project in mind where my characters will use a lot of old “cowboyisms,” But they aren’t likely to be ones you’ve seen before. BTW, does Noah happen to own a farm?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. As others have mentioned, I think as long as they aren’t overused, cliches are like a warm blanket- comfortable for readers. I mess them up enough to be different anyway. In my WIP I said my hero felt like he was a square bolt in the round nut of his family. It was pointed out that it should be hole, lol

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  9. I love what Harmony said about manipulating cliches. That’s great. I may have done that a time or two, but hers is really effective.

    One of these days, I want to write an old man character who speaks almost exclusively in cliches. As long as it’s in dialogue, it’s okay in my book. And I think that could be fun.

    Remember Biff in Back to the Future? He spoke in cliches but got them all wrong. That could be fun, too. (I may have done that once or twice, as well, but nothing that memorable.)

    Yeah, cliches are lazy and tired, but if they’re used strategically, they can work. Great post, Joan.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:

    I’ve read a recent series where a character not directly familiar with sayings, idioms and cliches gets them wrong and it’s funny. There are creative ways to approach these things and here’s Joan Hall’s take on Story Empire today.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Great post, Joan. I do sometimes use cliches in my writing, but I try to put a twist on it … like in my latest book, FALLOUT, I used the well known ‘pregnant pause’ cliche but did this with it … ‘The pause that followed wasn’t just pregnant, it was at full-term with the baby’s head poking out.’ Still, I would want to be careful how much slipped through. In my current WIP, I can see that I’m going to have to do a lot of weeding when editing time comes around, lol. Reblogged this on: https://harmonykent.co.uk/avoiding-the-use-of-cliches/

    Liked by 4 people

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