Writers Workshop – How To Avoid Writing Cliches

I was recently reading some reviews on a book by an indie author and I was struck by how many reviewers said the author was writing clichés.  This was a mystery novel and many pointed out that clichés throughout the book made for a boring read.  Wow, not what you want in a mystery novel (or any novel for that matter).  But…it’s true that if you’re writing clichés, you are bringing your story down.  It seems like a simple thing, but many indie authors miss this key point of storytelling: avoid the cliché.

Writers Workshop – What Is a Cliché?

A cliché is defined as a trite or stereotyped sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse.
Nice, but what does that really mean?  It’s a phrase (or character or plot) that’s been used so much everyone knows it, and it lacks any emotional oomph for your readers.  It takes two to tango is an example.  Okay, most of you are nodding your heads, saying I got it…I don’t do that.  But…

Writers Workshop – Writing Clichés That Creep Into Your Story

I see it happening.  Things sneak in (and some are painfully obvious).  Early in my writing career, I wrote the phrase smiling like a Cheshire cat.  No big deal, right?  Wrong.  Smiling like a Cheshire cat is an overused phrase.  So is wrong side of the bed, the sharpest knife in the drawer, barking up the wrong tree, patter of little feet, bated breath, sheepish grin, and so many more.  Avoid these.  They cheapen your writing.  Look through your work for any clichés and get rid of them or rewrite them.  A clever trick is to take something that’s common and rephrase it into an uncommon phrase.

Writers Workshop – Writing Clichés In Your Plot

It’s much harder to identify clichés in your story, but I see indie authors do this a lot.  Readers are looking for new experiences.  They want fresh ideas.  Not the same old story with the same old characters doing the same old thing.  Let’s take an example from what I know well, mystery novels.  I’ve seen so many examples by indie authors of the cop (you can replace cop with detective), or ex-cop, who’s an alcoholic, or recovering alcoholic, or he’s emotionally scarred in some other way, and he has to overcome this character flaw as he fights crime.  Boring.  Been done too many times.  Or the cop’s sidekick, the slothful, overweight, unkempt, uncouth guy who has a bad joke for everyone and every situation.  I find it amusing but JA Konrath falls for this one in his Jack Daniels series (and he still got a book deal – go figure :)).

Writers Workshop – Writing Clichés In Your Plot Part Two

I’m not an expert in fantasy, romance or other genres but I did a bit of research to see what others who write in these genres say is cliché plotting.  In fantasy, the sweeping castles, the long and overdrawn description of characters, fairies flying about for no reason, long overly descriptive battles, and so on.  In horror, vampire love stories – I’d say the whole Twilight storyline is overused.  Thrillers and white male serial killers – talk about overdone.  Romance – the evil other woman or ex-wife.  The naive virginal heroine.  The poor lonely woman who falls madly in love with the gorgeous, unavailable hunk.  I’ll give you one that’s become a cliché in the last 5-10 years…the Arab terrorist.  How many of those villains do you read about these days?

How to avoid these writing clichés?  I would encourage you to search the Internet on this topic.  You will find a wealth of information on this subject and examples for every genre.  And if it’s being written about, it’s probably a plot point you want to avoid.

Writers Workshop – Writing Clichés and Circumstance

Don’t fall for convenience.  We’ve all read stories where it felt like the author didn’t know what to do with the story so he put the characters in convenient situations, easy to write his way out of.  Only that kind of writing leads to boredom for the reader.  For example, you have a female cop…okay, that’s good, it’s different.  But the story is typical crime fiction fare, with no surprises.  Creating a different character isn’t enough if the circumstances your character experiences have all been done before.

Writers Workshop – Writing Clichés That Can’t Be Avoided

Some clichés can’t be avoided.  The good guy fights the bad guy.  The girl falls for the boy.  The trick with writing clichés is to take something everyone knows about and put a twist on it.  I write mystery novels.  I have a private eye, Reed Ferguson, but when I conceived the story, I turned the clichés on end.  The first in my first Reed Ferguson mystery series has Reed working on his very first case.  He doesn’t have the hat and fedora, but he idolizes Humphrey Bogart (the twist on the cliché).  His sidekicks aren’t bumbling, disheveled fat guys, they’re goofy and innocent.  You get the picture.

Another trick is to make your readers care about your characters.  One of the things I see indie authors do is to create characters that have no depth, or are so flat, shallow and unsympathetic, or just like everyone else and you don’t care about them.  Can you say stick figures?  This will kill your story.

Writers Workshop – Conclusion

So don’t tempt fate.  When you wake up and smell the coffee, you want to look out for number one.  You want your writing to be better than ever.  Throw caution to the wind and write a tried and true story, not the same song and dance everyone else does.  Remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained :).

About Renée Pawlish

Award-winning author Renée Pawlish writes the bestselling horror book, Nephilim Genesis of Evil, the Reed Ferguson mystery series, short stories and non-fiction ghost stories.
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20 Responses to Writers Workshop – How To Avoid Writing Cliches

  1. J.C. Martin says:

    Wonderful advice, Renee! Thank you for sharing! Yes, it seems like the cliche is a pit-trap that’s easier to fall into than you think!

    • ReneePawlish says:

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. And you are so right that it’s easy to fall into cliches. The best writing is tight and original. Thanks for your comment.

  2. I think I have to respectfully disagree. Don’t get me wrong, I strive for originality and usually achieve it, but there are a reason some plot devices and some authors are as successful as they are: they stick with what works.

    You mentioned JA Konrath as being guilty of this crime and still being successful. He could be an exception to the rule or he could fall under a more important rule – he can spin a fun story that people want to read, even if he’s not reinventing the wheel.

    Now a cliche that relies upon the cliche for entertainment, on the otherhand, is a hanging offense. :)

    • ReneePawlish says:

      Konrath, true, I should’ve clarified. I still enjoy that series even though the cliche is there. Lawrence Block has cliche characters in his Matt Scudder series but I enjoy them. Yes, some plots points can’t be avoided (I think I mentioned that lol), but the trick as you say it to make it original. What I see many indie authors not do is make it original…that kills the story. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Bert Carson says:

    It was a dark a stormy night. The rain was coming down in sheets. I read this blog post and night turned into day. The storm disappeared and the sun lit the landscape. A chickadee sang and all was right with the world.

    I couldn’t help myself. Nice piece of work my friend. Help I can use is always welcome.

  4. I find that when I’m writing a first draft, it’s usually cliche-ridden. I give myself permission to indulge in as many of them as I like, as a way to get them out of my system. Then I can sweep them away during editing and revisions, the place where I push myself to get more creative.

    I wonder if this is common for other writers?

    • ReneePawlish says:

      I do that some. In my first draft I just start writing to get the story out. It may include cliches, repeated use of the same word, poor descriptions and so on. Then I clean it up the next time I write, before I move on to the next scene. The point is to make sure you catch the bad stuff when you rewrite :). Thanks for your comment and good luck to you.

  5. Laura Zera (@laurazera) says:

    This is something for which I really did need a reminder! Thanks for bringing it to the forefront of my (semi-)consciousness.

  6. Jo VonBargen says:

    Thanks for this, very useful! I’ve been known to twist known beginning lines, i.e., “It was the wettest of times, it was the burst of times…” in my parody, “Broom’s Odyssey”. Sometimes it works, sometimes not! Anyway, love the write…you always deliver!

  7. Instead of our script we feel like we are the cliche – writers that drink too much wine and complain about not finishing their script – if only there was a scene of us crumpling up papers and throwing them in a trash can! Great post thanks for the reminders!

  8. CarrieVS says:

    I use whatever works best in my story; I don’t give a d*mn how often it’s been said before.
    It’s true that much-used devices may be less effective, but then they aren’t the thing that works best. And I personally find, in what I read as well as what I write, that very familiar phrases etc can sometimes be more effective.
    Don’t ever let anyone tell you ‘you can’t use that because _’.

    • ReneePawlish says:

      Interesting point, not sure I agree on your first part lol, but you have to go with your gut. The reviews and sales will be the ultimate barometer of whether something “works” or not, in my opinion. Thanks for your comment.

      • CarrieVS says:

        What I meant by the first part was that while I acknowledge that clichés often, in so becoming, lose their effect, not all well-used phrases do, and even if they do indeed have somewhat less impact than they started with they may still have quite a bit – such things tend to start with some to spare, or else why were they used so much?
        I flatter myself that I read enough to be as aware of over-used phrases as the majority of readers, so if it doesn’t seem trite to me, I don’t see why it’s too much of a cliché to include.
        My point really was don’t erase it for the sake of it. Clichés are something to be aware of, but the idea that they must automatically be removed rather than judged on their merits is, in my view, ridiculous.

        • ReneePawlish says:

          I think if they are going to be used, it’s how they are used. My editor has pointed out here and there where I used a twist on a cliche in prose and it didn’t work. But a character using a phrase, if it fits his/her voice, can work.
          I agree not to erase for the sake of it, but I also advocate tight writing, and cliches can bring writing down. Thanks for the good discussion :).

  9. Mar Preston says:

    Helpful advice. I strive to make the Santa Monica police detective in my series a little different because when I can see every plot device coming in a book I read I simply stop reading. Life is short and there are so many books. You have to be ruthless to find cliches in your own writing. Everybody needs an editor.

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