Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night . . .

By Joe Moore

If you were the first writer to have used that as an opening line, then it was brilliant. What a vivid way to create an immediate setting and mood. Congratulations on a fresh, original beginning. For everyone else, that line is a cliché. A language cliché to be exact. In addition to language clichés, there are character and plotting clichés. We all know not to use them, but sometimes they slip through when we’re not looking. So how do we avoid clichés like the plague and fix them in a snap?

First, let’s define the three types. As mentioned, language clichés are bits of speech that have been used so often they lose their original luster or charm. You’d have to be blind as a bat to not understand my crystal clear definition. It should hit you like a ton of bricks.

Character clichés are those we’ve seen too many times such as the prostitute with a heart of gold (includes a language cliché) or the disgraced, wrongly accused cop who winds up catching the killer.

Plotting clichés are well-worn storylines such as the farmer boy who turns out to be a king or the self-taught musician who eventually performs with the philharmonic. Two common plotting cliché examples that I’ve seen dozens of times are books and movies based on the “Bad News Bears” and “Death Wish” themes. The Bad News Bears theme usually deals with a group of outcasts or “losers” who reach the lowest point in their collective lives only to be pulled together by a strong, charismatic leader and wind up coming out winners. This theme does not have to deal with sports. Watch THE HOUSE BUNNY as a good example.

The Death Wish theme is usually the story of a common “every man” who experiences a tragic event in his or her life. Seeking justice but not getting help from the police or government (or any authority group), he/she steps out of a normal existence, takes matters into his/her own hands and finds justice and revenge by becoming judge, jury and executioner. THE BRAVE ONE is a great example of the Death Wish theme. It’s only through unique characters or settings that these cliché themes keep working. Try to avoid them if possible.

Language clichés are fairly easy to spot and fix. They often appear in your first or second draft when you’re writing fast to get the story onto the page and you don’t want to stop your momentum to think of an original description of a character or setting. There’s nothing wrong with that because you have every intention of going back and cleaning them up. First tip is to do your cliché hunting with a printed copy of your work, not on the computer screen. As you read along, use a color highlighter and mark everything that’s a cliché or even questionable. Then go back to the computer and take the time to consider each one and how you can improve them. In some cases, just substituting the real meaning in place of the cliché is enough. For instance, he’s as crazy as a loon could become he’s insane. Isn’t that what you really meant? How about, that kind of book is not my cup of tea could become I don’t enjoy that kind of book. Again, that’s the meaning you intended, so simply stating it could fix the problem better than relying on a cliché. Taken out of context, these might sound boring, but chances are that simplifying the meaning won’t stop the reader like a worn out phrase might. One caution though: it’s important to maintain and be true to your “voice” when using this simplifying technique.

One place where we can sometimes get away with clichés is in dialog. But that doesn’t mean we should. If a character uses a cliché, make sure it’s part of his or her “character” and not just an excuse for us to be lazy.

Character clichés are a little harder to fix, but the sooner you do, the better off you’ll be, and the more original your story becomes. Here’s an example: the disgraced cop is an anti-hero. He’s got deep dark issues but we still pull for him because he’s fighting for what’s right. Maybe he’s an alcoholic because he can’t get over the murder of his family. Try removing one of the main elements that drive the character; the disgraced career, the alcohol addiction or the dead family. Does his character change in your mind? Does he become more interesting? Can you still tell his story? If taking away or substituting an element suddenly creates a fresher character, you’ve probably avoided a character cliché. Another tip: If your character's action shows a serious lack of common sense, treat it as a cliché. You should always be considering what you would do in the same situation as your character. Would you react the same as what you just made your character do? If not, it’s probably a cliché.

Plot clichés need to be fixed from the start. The further you are into the story, the more work it takes to backtrack and change major elements. So before you begin, try this. Write out a short description of your story. Approach it as if you were writing the story blurb to go on the back cover of your book. Once you’re done, ask yourself if sounds familiar. Let someone else read it and ask the same question. If you can remember the same situation occurring in numerous movies, TV shows or books, it’s probably a cliché.

There’s nothing wrong with a cliché as long as you’re the first person to use it. After that, it loses its luster fast. Not only that, it’s a sign of lazy writing. As a good friend of mine once said, a cliché is the sign of a mind at rest.

How do you perform a “seek and destroy” on clichés? And how do you feel when you come across one in a book. If the story is really great, do you overlook clichés or do they cause you to think less of the writer?


  1. Joe, your advice is clear as crystal: Avoid cliches like the plague. That's the ticket to good writing.

  2. You're right that character cliches are the really tricky ones. How many cops, for example, have we seen portrayed in mysteries and thrillers? It's a challenge to present the fundamentals of their work lives without channeling the cliches of TV and movie detectives.

  3. Sometimes I let an occasional cliche stay on purpose.... like you said, usually its in dialog, where it is something that you would just commonly say that way as a normal bit of speech. Sometimes it can be used humorously as well when a character does it on purpose or draws attention to it. Jack O'Neill in Stargate comes to mind- but like you said, part of his character charm. Safer without most of the time.

  4. What's your take on playing with language cliches?

    I'm trying to come up with an example to show what I mean - here's one off the top of my head. *g*

    He was fit as a fiddle. Sure, one with the strings stretched too taut and the wood brittle enough to crack at the slightest pressure.

    Maybe not a great example but do you consider playing like that as acceptable or something you should avoid?

  5. Good advice throughout, but my favorite is the "Character common sense" suggestion. Few things turn me off a story quicker or more solidly than watching a character, confronted with a situation, do the one thing most likely to make the situation worse, and to do it repeatedly. Kills a book for me.

    When I find a cliche in my writing, I may remove it, or I may try to twist it, either by change one end or the other ("it fell on me like a ton of feathers" to imply a realization that comes more gently than suddenly), or, if in dialog, have the character mangle it, or use it incorrectly (I once had an inexperienced prosecutor say a suspect was "In like Flynn" when what he should have said was "in the wind." Gave the older cop a chance to carve on him a little.)

  6. MaryC, I wouldn't mind a version of that as long as you take out the first line, "He felt fit as a fiddle". You could rework the rest of it as a simile, perhaps, rather than as a modifier of the cliche. This would also be a good opportunity to select a metaphor or simile that reveals character. Would your character likely be a fiddle that is ready to break, or would he be a different type of instrument? Seems picky, but it's a good thing to put a lot of thought into each of these language selections.

  7. Thanks, Jim. Without your feedback, my advice wouldn't amount to a hill of beans.

    Kathryn, the stereotypical cop is way overused especially on episodic TV. A great example of writing around this is JUSTIFIED staring Timothy Olyphant on FX. That show is gritty and original.

    Chaco, I'm guilty of letting one slip through now and then, too. But just like cliches, there's nothing wrong with a slice of peperoni pizza once in a while. Just don't overdue it.

    Mary, one suggestion to get around your example is to acknowledge to the reader that you're using a cliche by changing the first line to: He was fit as the proverbial fiddle. But one with the . . .

    Dana, I recently got caught by one of my beta readers and fellow blogmate, Nancy Cohen, doing just that; having a character act without common sense. I knew it when I wrote it and I still did it. Guilty as charged.

  8. MaryC, I would say yes, you can play with a cliche. The reader knows you're doing so, and that takes away the criticism (Joe's suggestion is right on). I remember a line from Harlan Ellison: "She looked like a million dollars tax free."

    That little addition at the end freshened the cliche.

  9. Everything worth doing has most likely been done to death. It's a constant battle, being new and fresh. There's little new under the sun.

    I think the life-altering situations that give our characters their necessary flaws have become cliches because there just aren't enough of them in the library that holds them. A men who was bitten by a dog as a child is hardly to become a serial killed over it, although it might explain why he (or she) tortures dogs in the early stages of his (or her) career as a mass murderer. Not having a kitten as a child (Chronic per-adolescent cat deficiency) hardly makes for an interesting enough flaw to give the character the necessary tools or arc. Just off the top of my head.

  10. Miller, you're right, it's a constant battle to be original. And yet, it's such a great feeling when we are. When that spark of originality ignites, it is truly a thrill. BTW, "Just off the top of my head" is a you-know-what.

  11. While I agree with your advice wholeheartedly, I can't help but be reminded of my favorite film director Quentin Tarantino. He uses language cliches all the time in the movies that he writes and directs and ends up winning awards for them. So I can't help but wonder if there are instances in which you can use cliches that are okay. Obviously, there have to be otherwise those people giving Tarantino awards should not be in their position.

  12. Allen, thanks for the comment. Artists like Tarantino are out-of-the-box thinkers. His work is not only original, it's style-setting and unique. While he can bend the rules and bring ideas to his audience that, in some cases, have never been seen before, us mere mortals need to work at avoiding common pitfalls like cliches. And like Miller said, it ain't easy. As a matter of fact, I read someplace that if our writing comes easy, it's probably a cliche.

  13. The truth is people use cliches in day-to-day conversation all the time and if I am writing dialog then cliches are sometimes inserted when I think a character would use one. We all use them liberally in conversation. Sometimes they do work to ground dialog.

  14. You’re right, John. And because our characters must be believable, they need to act and speak like the rest of us. I tried a different approach to using clichés in my novel, THE 731 LEGACY. There were 4 aging, former KGB agents who spoke fractured English. Their dialog was filled with clichés but they seemed to come out slightly twisted, mixed up and off kilter, thereby giving the old men a little bit of extra color and character.

  15. The interesting thing about language cliches is that -as Mr. Miller noted above- they are part of our lexicon for a reason. They are usually quick and clever turns of phrase that bring to mind an immediate sense of what the speaker/writer is trying to convey. When we see the first word of that phrase, we already know how the sentence is going to end, and that is a comfortable and familiar feeling. Toying with these can be dangerous.

    I went through my first manuscript religiously removing anything that even resembled a cliche. When I was done, it read like a book translated from a foreign language. It was worse than Japanese Anime.

    Cliches and stereotypes play a certain useful (though sometimes annoying) role in our communication. If you page through most bestsellers, you'll find them. Some of the biggest selling books of the last decade have been absolutely riddled with cliches and stereotypes. At a certain point, I had to ask myself, "Are you trying to write correctly, or are you trying to write to sell?" People don't read books because they're filled with perfect English. In fact, they tend to run away from those. Just my opinion.

  16. I think sometimes we want cliche, as least in so much as we are looking for a particular story line or kind of writing. For instance, I am partial to stories about Nazis getting their buttocks resoundly thumped. I just like those kind of stories, whether it is in the context of WW2 or post war intrigue, or resurrecting the Reich in modern times. That being the case there will always be similarities that end up being cliche.

    So sometimes cliche is good, but only if that is what you are looking for. But of course if one can take a cliche theme and present it in a new, or at least less commonly used manner, all the better.

    As the old cliche goes:

    Like butter from a cow's nose, it's better than Rocky Mountain Oysters in a gravel pit on a friday night with Betty.

  17. This doesn't relate to cliches but I'd like to ask the bloggers and commentors here--when's the last time you read a book that had a line in it that was so memorable that it has stuck with you for years? That may not be the most important part of the reading experience, but to me, it says a lot about a book if it impressed me so much that a line the author wrote sticks in my memory.

    I find this very rarely happens but its a treasure when it does.

  18. I overlook cliches when I read stories that grip me. It's harder to overlook them in my own writing let alone find them. That's where my critique partners (i.e. You) come in handy. And hey, I love the farmer turns into king archetype. Some of those character cliches resonate throughout time. That's why we keep using them.

  19. Cliches in dialogue are very important. I had a crit partner go on and on that I had a character saying, "like a bull in a china shop." He wanted something more original, say, "like a sumo wrestler in a yoga class." I had to point out that my character was speaking in the 1930s and his version wouldn't work.

    I have to confess a weakness for some character cliches. They are like Twinkies, evil, but often irresistible. In watching movies, especially ensemble casts, my husband and I have a game where we try and identify the trope. Our favs include:

    Reluctant hero,
    Villain in search of redemption,
    Designated victim,
    Loveable rogue, etc.

    What I don't like are series where the hero eventually develops super powers as the writer tries harder and harder to make a likely cliched character fresh and interesting as the series progresses.