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10 Tips to Avoid Clichés in Writing

Categories: Complete 1st Draft, Haven't Written Anything Yet, Writing for Beginners, How to Improve Writing Skills, How to Start Writing a Book, 1st Chapter, Literary Fiction Writing, What's New, Writing Your First Draft Tags: craft/technique, write better.

It’s not enough to love our story ideas. We need to weigh their suitability as subjects for fiction, and then figure out how to go about making use of them. This means steering clear of cliché and its sappy cousin—melodrama. Here are 10 tips to help you do just that.

(Note: This article is about cliched themes, not phrases. If you want to learn about cliche phrases that all writers should avoid, check out these cliche examples).

Avoid Stolen or Borrowed Tales

A writer’s job is to write stories—not to steal or borrow them and, with a coat of fresh paint, pawn them off as original.

That should be obvious, but it’s not always completely clear. Our own private thoughts, dreams, intuitions and fantasies are inevitably colored by what psychiatrist Carl Jung called the collective unconscious—the vast, reservoir-like body of shared human experiences and of myths, symbols and legends.

Most sensational subjects have been treated to death. Result: a minefield of clichés. And, as novelist Martin Amis tells us, good writing is a “war against cliché.” The story’s problems might be partially redeemed by crisp dialogue, vivid descriptions and an impeccable edgy style—but the plain fact is, they shouldn’t be solved. Steer clear of tired plots and you, your characters and your readers will avoid all kinds of heartache.

Resist The Lure of the Sensational

For beginning and experienced writers alike, the temptation to choose intrinsically dramatic subjects is hard to resist. Drug deals and busts gone wrong, kidnapping, abortion, car crashes, murder, madness, rape, war—with such sensational raw material to work with, how can writers go wrong?

They can and they do.

A writer who chooses to set his story in a mental hospital, for instance, may bumble into a minefield of clichés. He will need to avoid all the stereotypes of loony-bin lore coined by Ken Kesey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and recycled in a myriad of TV shows and books.

Not that you can’t set a story on a mental ward, or that you can’t tell stories about mental patients and the abuses they suffer at the hands of their keepers. But if you do so, you need to realize what you’re up against.

And what you’re up against is cliché.

Turn a Stereotype on its Head

Every milieu has its clichés, its stock characters and stereotypes. A common stereotype is that of the starving artist. Just once, I’d like to read about a talented, hard-working painter, supplementing his small income from gallery sales through teaching, grants and fellowships. This, after all, is the reality for many professional fine artists.

Even poor Vincent van Gogh, that most depraved and deprived of artists, fails to live up to the image. The letters he wrote to his brother Theo and others show how sane this “madman” was. True, he often went hungry, and he suffered from incapacitating seizures. But the cartoon of the foaming madman does him no justice.

The real problem with clichés is that they deprive us of genuine details, which, though less sensational, are both more convincing and more interesting. A deeper look into the life of any artist will reveal facts that have it over all clichés.

The truth is the best weapon we have for authenticity and against cliché: Whether it’s the literal truth or the truth of imagination doesn’t matter.

Tell the Story Only You Can Tell

When we produce stories that are derivative, we’re not being honest with ourselves. We’re borrowing someone else’s aesthetics and selling them as our own.

In choosing intrinsically sensational subjects, writers think they’re getting a free—or a cheap—ride. But as with most things in life, you tend to get what you pay for.

The best way to avoid cliché is to practice sincerity. If we’ve come by sensational material honestly, through our own personal experience or imagination, we may rightly claim it as our own. Otherwise, we’d best steer clear. Our stories should be stories that only we can tell, as only we can tell them.

Keep it Real by Taking it Slow

My favorite exercise is to ask my students to write two pieces, one at a time, each about a minute long. Piece 1 should rivet the reader; Piece 2 should bore the reader stiff. Each student reads both pieces out loud.

Whenever I’ve done this experiment, in almost every instance the result is the same: The “riveting” piece bores, while the “boring” piece holds interest. There are several reasons for this. In their effort to grip us, beginning writers tend to rush: They equate their own adrenaline with that of the reader. Conversely, when trying to bore, the same writers take their time; they don’t hesitate to lavish 250 words on the subject of a wall of white paint drying. And—to their consternation—the result mesmerizes. At any rate it holds our attention.

But far worse than rushing, in trying to interest us, most writers abandon sincerity and, with it, authenticity. They choose sensational subjects on the basis of little personal knowledge and no genuine emotional investment. They do so on the assumption that their own stories aren’t interesting enough, that what they have to offer isn’t suitably “sensational.” In fact, every human is in some way unique, and this in itself makes us each “sensational” in our own ways.

In pretending to be anyone other than themselves, writers sacrifice the very thing we most crave from them: authenticity.

Deliver Your Story From Circumstantial Cliché

As the moth is attracted to flame, less-than-vigilant writers are attracted to the bright light of intrinsically dramatic situations, where the drama is preassembled, ready to use—convenient.

We’re drawn to clichés because they’re convenient. And convenience for writers—convenient plots, convenient characters, convenient coincidences, convenient settings or situations or strings of words—almost always spells doom.

A writer sets her story in an abortion clinic. What are the expectations raised by such a setting? To the extent that the common expectations raised by this setting are met head-on, the story fails. It descends into cliché and denies the reader an authentic experience.

What will the author do to rescue that drama from our expectations, from cliché? Steer clear of such territory to give us a story that reawakens our senses to a subject that has in and of itself become a cliché.

Elevate the Ordinary

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath.”

Either your chosen subject plunges you into the imagination’s deeper waters, or your story will probably drift into one of two shallow waterways:

  1. the autobiographical estuary, in which you write strictly about characters and events from your own life; or
  2. the brackish bay of stereotype and cliché.

The way to rescue this and other clichés may lie in exploring those parts of the story that don’t belong firmly to the cliché. By investing our characters with concerns and struggles that point away from the hackneyed and sensational and toward the earthier dramas of “ordinary” existence, by taking the most trite elements of our stories out of the foreground and putting them in the background, we begin to lift them out of cliché.

Rescue Gratuitous Scenes From Melodramatic Action

Overly convenient subjects are prone not only to cliché, but to melodrama.

We call a story or a scene melodramatic when its protagonists are too obviously heroes or victims and its antagonists are obviously villains. Another acid test for melodrama is the tendency to resort to violence, either emotional (catatonic seizures, gasps, screams, floods of tears, verbal confrontations) or physical (fisticuffs—or worse, depending on the caliber of melodrama and available firearms).

Gratuitous violence is synonymous with melodrama. So is the gratuitous gesture, as when a character who has just come into a fortune tosses fistfuls of greenbacks like confetti into the air—a cliché that probably has never once happened in real life. (When it does happen, I want to be there.)

Any over-the-top action results in melodrama. A male lover, freshly dumped by his girl, throws himself into the nearest river. Melodrama. Or, being told by the same girl that she loves him, he boards a crowded subway and kisses everyone in sight, including a blind man and the conductor. Melodrama. The specific circumstances might explain such behavior (and casting a young Jimmy Stewart would help). But the likelihood is slim.

Fight Overly Convenient Plot Points With Authenticity

Melodrama is to authentic drama what “crab sticks” are to the real thing: an inferior substitute.

When people punch each other in stories, suspect imitation. In real life people seldom use their fists. It’s dangerous, and illegal. A solid fist to the bridge of a nose could result in death, and appropriate charges.

Sometimes the mere piling on of sensational events results in melodrama. Another result of cramming too much drama into too few pages is a paucity of authenticating detail,the sort of small, precise, carefully chosen and calibrated descriptions that help suspend a reader’s disbelief and make it possible for her to enjoy a story no matter how unlikely or outrageous.

By slowing down and taking the time and trouble to imbue our stories with authentic, rich, specific moments and details, we achieve real drama and avoid its floozy cousins, sentimentality and melodrama.

Curb Melodrama with Substance

In real life, people do throw water in their spouses’ faces, and shout accusations at each other; they even commit murder out of passion or for vengeance. Such things can happen in your fiction, too. But when violent confrontations become the story, when they are the rule and not the exception, then violence usurps drama.

The result is melodrama, what soap operas are made of. And soap operas are not dramatic; they are intrinsically nondramatic, since their perpetuity depends on nothing ever being resolved. The characters never change.

In soap operas we get wish fulfillment and negative fantasy in place of real resolutions. When a relationship is “dramatized,” nearly all of the dialogue is head-on and histrionic, vomiting up plot and backstory. Accusations and apologies are served up along with great gobs of personal history.

A more dramatic, less histrionic approach would convey the status quo between characters up front, through exposition, leaving subsequent scenes free to explore behavior and character. We read the story to see how these characters will cope (or not) with each other under specific circumstances (e.g., they have to pick a coffin for their mother’s funeral). When authors explode drama rather than describe it, their material deteriorates into soap opera and blows up in everyone’s face. Avoid the temptation to do so, and your fiction will be more powerful for it.

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11 Responses to 10 Tips to Avoid Clichés in Writing

  1. pselgin says:

    So many indignant voices raised in defense of the poor cliché–as if it were some beleaguered, endangered species and not as common and desirable as the cockroach. Martin Amis said it best, “All good writing is a war against cliché.” Emphasis on “good writing,” which isn’t always what sells best, but then McDonald’s is the world’s most popular food, and Cheese Doodles sell better than real cheese.

    A word of caution to those whose highest aspiration is to write like Mr. Balducci (or to make his money): to get there you’ll need to aim higher, since a writer’s aim is bound to exceed his or her reach. You’ll have to read Robert Stone, say, or Graham Greene, or Alan Furst. Or better still Dostoevsky or Malraux.

    To “Exiled Star” who defies me to supply a list of professional artists who subsist on grants, fellowships, and small incomes through teaching, etc.: do you really doubt the existence of such people, of art professors at colleges and universities, of recipients of public and private grants, of working illustrators, graphic artists, and designers? For thirty years I made a living in New York city as a painter and illustrator; it wasn’t a cake-walk, but it’s possible and many do it. I wonder, too, how you define “starving” and whether or not this may be a bit of sentimentality? Even van Gogh, that poster child of the “starving artist,” ate.

    Here the danger of cliché is demonstrated, in this case by someone so invested in one that he or she sees “starving artists” where in fact there are only failed ones (with probably a fair number of dilettantes among them) working as waiters, secretaries, or store clerks. That’s not “starving,” and it’s not a cliché.

    But it is authentic. And authenticity is what I for one look for in good writing.

  2. jotokai says:

    I think what she’s really getting at is Story Logic. Every action by a character requires two things: background and stimulus. If you show me Lou paying a fine he got for punching somebody who cut in line, then you show somebody flipping Lou the bird, then the scene where Lou runs him off the road and beats his head against the steering wheel will NOT seem like a cliche. Especially when the next scene has his girlfriend dumping him for being a hothead. Why? Because we already know Lou does this kind of stuff, and we know that the other driver gave him a perfect reason to do it right now.

    That’s what’s meant by “Slow down.” It means: Show the reader exactly why it happened, and we’ll believe it. If we believe it, it’s not a cliche- it’s an event.

    Cliche is only cliche when it stands out as such to the reader; otherwise, it’s just popular subject matter. Like the symbolism I read about in an article on this site today: once the reader notices it, it distracts from the story.

    Anyway, if that’s not what she had in mind, I don’t care because, in my book, it’s a much more satisfactory treatment of cliche.

  3. Now_Novel says:

    Great article, thank you. Isn’t it interesting how easy it is to fall into the trap of cliche?
    Sometimes when the writing is flowing it feels like it’s pure originality, and then it turns out to be flowing purely because it’s a cliche…
    Thanks for the reminders!

  4. Emily says:

    I loved this article! I definitely don’t agree with the negative comments. I don’t think the author is advising to “never” write about things that can be seen as cliche; to me it seemed more of a warning of what is bad writing. I took it as advising the writer to “show” instead of tell, to let writing be natural instead of forced, and not to be so quick to say “filled with rage, he punched him in the face.” It seemed to be saying to let good character development dictate what your character would really (actually) do. If the character you have written/created would do something cliche (like start a bar brawl), then I don’t think it is cliche; its the natural result of your character’s reaction to an experience.

    As a newb writer, I find myself constantly battling cliche. Sometimes in scenarios or plots, but also in using cliche terms. I don’t see any way through it except to just keep writing, reading, observing and experiencing (to inspire the writing.) Great article! Here’s my cliche smiley face to show I enjoyed it. =)

  5. pacanime says:

    If you want male readers, you will need some action in most cases. Having the characters talk about their feelings wouldn’t do, even for most female readers. I think the writer of the article makes some valid points. Reading tends to be subjective anyway. What one person likes, another may hate. I say all of this is just stuff. Write what you feel led to write, if nobody reads it then you know it was no good. If you try to write what someone else tells you, you’ll likely miss the mark.

  6. Exiled Star says:

    “Just once, I’d like to read about a talented, hard-working painter, supplementing his small income from gallery sales through teaching, grants and fellowships. This, after all, is the reality for many professional fine artists.”

    Could we get a detailed list of these “many” artists?
    I’m an artist, and in my experience, the “starving artist” cliche is dead on.
    If you wanted to subvert it, though, you could write about a formerly starving artist who gave up his dream and became a corporate hack, made a lot of money and lived not entirely happily ever after. I’ve known a number of people who’ve done that.

  7. warrenells says:

    I believe the author of the article has essentially advised us to be ordinary and boring in order to avoid cliche in our writing. I dare say that following that advice would put 95% of writers of dramatic television series, screenwriters, and novelists out of business. Don’t write a fist fight because it’s melodramatic and because in real life fighting is dangerous and illegal, and you should “suspect imitation”? Don’t write over-the-top, bigger-than-life situations because we should take things slowly? Really? I was under the impression that one of the reasons we love to read fiction and watch movies and television shows with events unlikely to transpire in real life is precisely because they are an escape from ordinary, boring reality. I’m all for fleshing out the “melodrama” with authenticity, as the author suggests, but please, let us keep our flights of fancy for those of us who love a good yarn, no matter how unlikely.

    • Crono91 says:

      Right! That was what I was thinking. I most definitely don’t read a novel in hopes that it will play out exactly like the world I’m already living. If I’m reading an action adventure fiction then I want to be blown away by creative characters that you wouldn’t normally see and action pieces that make you go D:

      A friend read this and said, “Maybe he was referring to Romance since all his examples seemed to regard that type of situation.” Maybe he was, but even with Romance people don’t want to read un-creative real life situations. Talk about stealing ideas! You’ve already lived it!

      Two movies that come to mind: (I don’t read romance but I’ve heard good things about them) are the Notebook and P.S. I Love You. Now tell me those situations could ever happen in real life?!

    • StevenSM says:

      I’m inclined to agree here. This article feels less like an informative piece and more a pedantic essay by someone whose opinions reflect disdain for what THEY view as cliché. Warren hit the button on the nose speaking in relation to current, and even former, business models in creative storytelling. How the hell are campy stories supposed to exist without melodrama? Science Fiction writers’s authenticity comes from basis in science fact, but is otherwise 100% silicon string spun for miles. Fantasy? Let’s not even go there; I doubt this article even applies to a good fantasy epic like A Game of Thrones or The Hobbit. At the end of the day, Mr. Selgin, it feels like you just wanted to tell people that you’re tired of clichés, not that readers, writers, or publishers are. No offense, but the whole article felt like it was shot from the hip.

  8. JonNichols says:

    While I obviously cannot say for certain and I’m really just guessing, I get the gut impression that the author of this article would most definitely place Baldacci and Child in the realm of “cliche.” What’s more, I doubt the author holds them in any kind of real esteem.
    That’s too bad, really. Such a viewpoint excludes many works that have value, even if those who wrote them dared to sully their hands with “fisticuffs—or worse, depending on the caliber of melodrama and available firearms.” In the end it’s all a matter of taste. I’ve read books by authors like Updike and Roth who keep it slow and down-to-earth. For me, it was like watching candle wax dry. One of the exigencies behind writing in the first place was to entertain. There are stories that are meant to be told over and over just in different forms. Cliches are sometimes helpful for the reader to serve as guideposts or familiar tropes to get them into a story. There is nothing wrong with entertainment or what critics might term “melodrama.” Thinking otherwise is like thumbing your nose at a candy factory for not manufacturing granola. Two different things. Two different end purposes.
    I’m no apologist for Baldacci or Child and certainly not for Dan Brown but if they are “cliche” then good for them. I’ll take their sales figures any day.

  9. jmiff328 says:

    I have a question that maybe someone could answer. This is in no way meant to be sarcastic so I hope it doesn’t come off that way. Are books like Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher, or Zero Day by David Baldacci considered cliché? I know they have sold many copies but in your opinion would they be cliché since they are filled with fights and “one liner’s?” The character comes out strong in both examples but is it overshadowed by the cliché of the tough military cop with a chip on his shoulder? I really liked the article!!

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