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April 2017

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It's been done before, or, the snapped twig

As writers, we're taught to shy away from cliches. We start out with confidence, thinking, "That's easy advice to take! I'm never going to say, 'red as a beet' or 'sweet as sugar.'" But then we learn, to our horror, how very many stock phrases are out there--"my stomach churned," "out of the corner of my eye," etc. We find more and more of them in our work, and we dutifully root them out.

Then we discover that people who read a lot see patterns that the average reader may not even notice. Oh no; it's another crop of cliches! Now we have more lists to remember, as we learn that red-haired characters, and characters describing themselves in a mirror, and best friends becoming attracted to one another, are situations to avoid.

The problem is, there are so many of these phrases and situations that have been done before. I reached a point where I began to feel overwhelmed by the lists, paralyzed by self-censorship. It was then that I thought: Enough. I have to go back to my gut check, and write what feels right, and not worry so much about whether it's a cliche to someone else.

Because you know one thing that is on those lists of no-nos? Starting a book with a character waking up. And yet that's how The Hunger Games starts, and I think we all know how well that has turned out for Suzanne Collins.

I'm not going to say that we don't have to worry about originality and freshness. We do. But I want to look at the reason behind avoiding cliches. A phrase or situation becomes tired when it's done out of laziness. When we use it not because it feels true to the story we're telling, but because we've seen it happen that way before, so we grab the stock phrase or character or situation off the shelf and plug it right in, without asking,"Is this really how it feels, how it happens? Is this true?"

For example: One situation we've probably all seen is a character who's sneaking through the woods and is betrayed by stepping on, and snapping, a twig. That's a pet peeve of mine, in fact. But I'm not going to say it can't work in a story. To extend my "for-instance" by referring to The Hunger Games again: Collins establishes that Katniss and Gale, the hunters, are very quiet in the forest. But Peeta, who's been raised in town, has never learned to move with that sort of stealth. So if we had a situation involving those characters where Peeta snapped a twig, I would totally buy it. Not so much Katniss or Gale.

A character can snap that twig if he really would be in the woods and really wouldn't know how not to snap a twig, given who he is and what's happening. Maybe it's a little harder to sell a reader on a snapped twig, since that one has been done so many times before. But anything can work if it's right for the story.


I was just thinking about this. I was going through my current WIP and I ran across a cliche. I don't remember the exact one, but it had something to do with water. I did not remove it, however, because the MC had grown up by the ocean. Her father was a sailor and had probably said it a million times around her. Of course she'd use that phrase. Now any others, yeah they got the axe.
I once wrote a story in which a character used cliches all the time--it was one of her quirks, and affected how she dealt with the main character.

Cliches from the Neophytes

Thanks, Jennifer, for this reminder. It's one of the most frequent problems I run into with the writing group I moderate. I've made some copies of your thoughts--with all attribution, of course--and want to share them with that group next week.

Re: Cliches from the Neophytes

Be my guest!