6 Ways Clichés Can Help Your Writing

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

Ah, the dreaded cliché. It sneaks into our writing with nary a noise, and yet is received by readers with a resounding clunk.

Most writers go to great lengths to avoid them.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, on whose wings Janet Fitch’s debut White Oleander found its well-deserved audience, Fitch said she approached her work like a poet, replacing any combination of words that she’d ever heard before. While this is more effort than many of us are willing to expend, it makes sense from a business perspective. Why should a publisher pay a wordsmith to regurgitate combinations so recognizable that readers are numb to them? We need to do the work of creative writers and come up with word clusters that will snag the reader’s interest and inspire fresh thought.

But to sidestep clichés at all costs is to miss out on a handy tool that’s available to all writers. After all, when we need to drive home a nail, will we refuse the hammer just because it is a simple and easily recognized tool? Consider the following arguments in support of the lowly cliché.

1. Clichés are true. Why else would they be overused? Even the claim that “fiction writers make things up to find out what is true” may now be a cliché, but it rings the bell of truth loud and clear. (“Loud and clear”—I’m on a roll!)

2. Clichés make a convenient placeholder while drafting. If your first draft lacks sparkle due to an overuse of clichés, this simply proves their ubiquity: finding clichés conveniently lined up on the nearest shelf, your mind made good use of them while laying down your story. This is smart. Further innovation at this point would impede the story as it flows from mind to virgin page.

The time to replace worn-out phrases with more evocative language is in later drafts, as Fitch did, when you’re sure that sentence is needed. If the cliché conveys just the right meaning, try refreshing it with a twist. As you would with any edited prose, demand that your twisted cliché create voice, deepen characterization, and/or further plot.

Here’s what Mark Z. Danielewski did to spiff up his prose in an excerpt from the cult classic, House of Leaves.  My guess is that this exchange between his narrator and the woman he just met began with inspiration from the Supremes hit, “(Whenever You’re Near) I Hear a Symphony.” (And let’s face it—any song Motown produced in the 60s is probably a cliché today).

 “Thank you,” I said, thinking I should kneel.
“Thank you,” she insisted.
Those were the next two words she ever said to me, and wow, I don’t know why but her voice went off in my head like a symphony. A great symphony. A sweet symphony. A great-f***ing-sweet symphony. I don’t know what I’m saying. I know absolutely sh*t about symphonies.

I don’t know whether Danielewski wrote this way from the get-go or if it was in revision that he waxed symphonic. But it was entertaining, right? Even out of context, this riff perfectly evokes the effect this woman has had on the protagonist.

3. Clichés provide a recognizable jumping off point for your own creativity. A cliché can create just the right axis for your own creative spin. In House of Leaves, for example, when our narrator meets this woman, she leaves him “reeling.” (Bet you never heard that one before!) But look what Danielewski did with that, by unspooling thoughts from deep within his character’s reeling point of view:

And hard as this may be for you to believe, I really was reeling. Even after she left the Shop an hour or so later, I was still giving serious thought to petitioning all major religions in order to have her deified.

In fact I was so caught up in the thought of her, there was even a moment where I failed to recognize my boss. I had absolutely no clue who he was. I just stared at him thinking to myself, “Who’s this dumb mutant and how the hell did he get up here?” which it turns out I didn’t think at all but accidentally said out loud, causing all sorts of mayhem to ensue, not worth delving into now.

While trying to ground a character’s reaction in visceral sensations, it pays to throw our creativity into a higher gear. Human biology and physiology offer us a limited palette with which to color those reactions. Heavy sighs, fluttering stomachs, clenched jaws, throbbing temples—the worth of a visceral reaction will be diminished if its clichéd nature threatens reader engagement.

Frederik Backman, in his novel My Grandmother Wants to Tell You She’s Sorry, finds fresh ways to spin such reactions that are consistent with his characters’ voices.

The woman takes such a deep breath that if you threw a coin into it you’d never hear it hit the bottom.

Mum’s sigh as she answers is so deep that it feels as if Elsa’s sheets are ruffled by the draft.

Mum sighs and smiles at the same time, as if one emotional expression is trying to swallow the other.

4. Clichéd characterization is a fast track to shame. If your character is afraid of becoming a walking cliché, he will gain our sympathy—you only need set up why. Even now, 20 years since reading Deception on His Mind by Elizabeth George, I remember the way this opening line had me cringing: “To Ian Armstrong, life had begun its current downward slide the moment he’d been made redundant.”

The powerful inner conflict at the heart of many a protagonist is born of the desire to fit in with others even while desperately hoping that their individuality matters. This conundrum is so central to our human existence that readers gobble up such stories at every reading level, from P.D. Eastman’s displaced hatchling in the children’s book Are You My Mother to cancer warrior Lucy Grealy’s memoir The Autobiography of a Face, to adult fiction, such as Kim Michele Richardson’s blue-skinned librarian in The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. The premise is refreshed through details.

5. Clichés can sketch a quick background. Think a dark tale in the City of Light, sin in the City of Angels, murder and mayhem in the City of Brotherly Love. These backdrops quickly evoke the nature of the conflict to come.

Clichéd characters can also provide a backdrop that will make a protagonist pop. An example might be the story of a woman in her 40s who is still trying and discarding jobs and partners while seeking a sense of self, set against the life of her sidekick, the cheerleader who married the high school quarterback and settled in their hometown with two kids and a minivan. The description of the high school power couple may read as jealousy at first, but the cliché will set up the expectation that nothing is ever as easy as this couple makes it seem.

6. Clichés provide a welcome shorthand in a query. How do “friends-to-lovers” romances, “coming-of-age” young adult tales, and “cat and mouse” thrillers still get published? It’s because such tropes, so overused that they are a form of cliché, are easy to latch onto. On the business end, they give publishing professionals a quick grasp of your story’s underpinnings, assuring them it’s the kind of book they can sell; on the consumer end, they assure the reader they have picked up the kind of story that appeals to them. Once you set that expectation, you can share how the perspective of your protagonist adds its own special twist.

If you are convinced that your book is “one of a kind” and “never-before encountered,” good luck selling it. The world of traditional publishing, even while looking for the next new thing, bases sales potential, acquisitions, and author advances on what has come before. Which means that debut authors—and experienced authors who stay in the game—must figure out how to build something new on a well-known base.

Clichés are here to stay, so best think of them as a playground. You might be looking at the same old array of swings, slides, monkey bars, and merry-go-rounds, but there are an infinite number of ways to play with them.

Let’s practice. Whether by indulging in a Danielewski-style rant, adding a Backman enhancement, or sharing your own inimitable style, take one of these clichéd titles from a sixties hit and give it a creative spin.

You can’t hurry love

I heard it through the grapevine

Dancing in the street

Ain’t no mountain high enough

The tears of a clown

I look forward to reading what you come up with!