We’ve all heard the expression, “That’s so cliche!” But what does it really mean, and can it mean more than one thing?
A cliche can be described as:
- A trite or overused expression or idea ~The Free Dictionary
- A hackneyed theme, characterization or situation ~Merriam-Webster Dictionary
- Something that has become overly familiar or commonplace ~Merriam-Webster Dictionary
- A person or character whose behaviour is predictable or superficial ~The Free Dictionary
So, cliches don’t just include phrases we hear too often, but also ideas and situations, and even characters.
DeepGenre makes an interesting observation in that:
One of the standard Words of Advice that writers–new and old–get, is to avoid clichés. The advice itself is rather a cliché but, like all clichés, it is based in truth, and it would be wrong to reflexively ignore it.
But what’s so wrong about using cliches? Sure, maybe they sound a little tired, but how bad could they possibly be?
Oxford Dictionaries puts it well:
[Cliches] tend to annoy people, especially if they’re overused, and they may even create an impression of laziness or a lack of careful thought. Some people just tune out when they hear a cliché and so they may miss the point that you’re trying to make.
There’s the heart of the problem—no one wants to read something they’ve already read a thousand times. And, as a writers of integrity, none of us set out to look lazy.
As I mentioned before, the term ‘cliche’ can refer to a number of different things, but they all share the commonalities of being (a) overused, (b) meaningless, and (c) boring.
1. Overused expressions
Common sayings (or idioms) like “All’s fair in love and war” and “Blood is thicker than water” are cliched. They once held truth and meaning, but through overuse have become meaningless.
Other expressions you may find peppered through your writing include, “He was scared to death,” “It was my worst nightmare,” “She was as sick as a dog,” and “He sighed with relief.”
But even more insidious are the classification of expressions that are so commonplace, we don’t even notice them: “Needless to say,” “At this point in time,” “Each and every one,” “Off the top of my head,” “Mark my words,” and “I beg to differ.”
The list could go on and on (I think “on and on” might even be a cliche…), but you get the idea. These expressions are overused, meaningless, and boring.
[Check out this list of 500 Cliches to Avoid in your Creative Writing, and An A to Z of Cliches for Writers to Avoid Like the Plague.]
2. Hackneyed plots
We’ve probably all heard that there are only so many original plots in existence, and that every book in existence is simply a variation of one of those plots. That’s completely true. But, some plots have become so hackneyed, readers begin to think, “Ugh. Not again.”
How to Avoid Plot Cliches gives the example of the character who knows some terrible secret, but dies or falls into a coma before he or she can pass the secret on to the main character.
Or, how about this one: young city girl loses/quits her job and moves to small town which she hates at first, but soon comes to love for its quirky inhabitants and one very special male character.
No one’s saying you can’t make these overused plots fresh—in fact, writers do it every day and still manage to get published. But, if the plot or premise is hackneyed, the writer must do something else to make the story stand out. Maybe the characters or the setting are what sets it apart from the rest.
[Just for a laugh, check out this cool cliched plot generator.]
3. Stereotypical characters
In my opinion, the best books are those that feature characters who remain in my memory long after I’ve finished reading. That’s why it’s especially frustrating when I come across completely one-dimensional, stereotypical characters that ruin an otherwise okay story.
Within my reading experience, I’ve come across characters like these:
- a male love-interest who was fat in high school, but who turns out to be beefy and handsome when the leading lady meets him again as an adult
- a young professional woman who can’t seem to find love amongst all the frogs
- a handsome, brooding man whose wife died, and now he just can’t allow himself to admit his feelings for the new lady in his life
These are stereotypes. We’ve seen these characters again and again.
Again, that’s not to say you couldn’t take one of these characters and make them outstanding, while setting them within a not-so-hackneyed plot. It’s just more difficult to pull off.
[Helen Fielding managed to do it with the much-loved Bridget of Bridget Jones's Diary.]
The Cliched Writing Self-Test
Okay—moment of truth. (Another cliche, right?)
Print out one chapter or section of your work-in-progress, and work through it with a highlighter.
Each time you come across…
- a phrase you hear commonly used
- a too-obvious descriptive word (like describing the sun as ‘glaring’)
- a situation that seems unoriginal
- a character you’ve seen before, or one who behaves in a stereotypical manner
Worse than you thought? Better?
You’ve probably found at least a few instances of cliched writing which would have otherwise gone unnoticed. If not, try digging out a piece from your earlier writing days. See a difference?
Now, before you go throwing out your novel or short story because you think your writing is hopeless, check out Oxford Dictionaries Action Points for Avoiding Cliches. There are some great practical ways to rid your prose of these impediments to excellent writing.
The odd cliche isn’t going to kill your work-in-progress. Sometimes they can be used to your advantage, but in general there are better ways to get your point across.
How cliched is your writing? Do you have a strategy for preventing or identifying cliches in your works-in-progress? Which cliched phrases, ideas, or characters do you find popping up in your work again and again?