Clichés pop in a writer's mind as fast as lightning. They cover the bases.
Clichés roll onto your page like gumballs rolling out of a gumball machine. They require no more thought than swatting a fly. They fit like a pair of old shoes. They sound right, look right, feel right as rain.
I get a bee in my bonnet and a burr under my saddle when I think about writers taking the easy road, using clichés to pave the way to lickety-split writing. Haste makes waste.
Fourteen clichés in eight sentences.
According to Donald Maass, clichés sprout up everywhere. Donald Maass has a sensitive cliché-meter. So do other agents. So do I.
Clichés are sneaky. You may not catch them until a seventh or eleventh read. Or you may not catch them at all. Critique partners may catch overused or clichéd phrases and sentences you miss. It’s up to you to decide whether to keep, nix, twist, play, or rewrite fresh. I’m not saying writers need to nix every cliché and overused word pairing. I am saying it would be smart to nix or play with most of them, and see if there’s a stronger option.
Writing experts recommend avoiding clichés. Why?
- They’re predictable. Not interesting.
- They invite the reader to skim, to disconnect from your story.
- They don’t deepen characterization or draw the reader deeper into the scene.
- They may cover up the power you could have had on the page.
This first example is from my Fab 30: Advanced Deep Editing course. Rayn Ellis had these two sentences in a chapter she posted for editing.
Soul Song, Rayn Ellis, Multi-Immersion Grad, Golden Heart Finalist
Another charismatic, handsome man had no place in her life.
Been there, done that.
My cliché meter pinged. I wrote this note:
Here’s an easy cliché twist that just popped into my brain.
Been there, failed that.
The overused carry-no-power line is gone. Now that line carries a WOW factor.
And it conveys THE TRUTH. Regarding men, she was a failure.
Cliché twists can add interest and deepen characterization. Let’s check out some other examples.
Esther Scott’s Grand Adventure, Megan Menard, Multi-Immersion Grad
- Before: Over her dead body.
After: Over her freshly-rehabbed body.
- Before: “Forget it. You’re slower than molasses.”
After: “Forget it. You’re slower than dial up internet.”
The cliché twists makes those sentences pop. Add a Hit of Humor
I Do Not, Rhay Christou, Multi-Immersion Grad
By mid-afternoon I was worth about as much as an overwound Timex. I’d taken a licking and wanted to stop ticking.
Rhay played off a commercial for Timex watches. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
Using rhyming words makes it funny. What if they’d used a non-rhyming word in that commercial?
-- Takes a beating and keeps on ticking.
Not funny. Never would have been in the commercial.
They used the rhetorical device: assonance, rhyming vowel sounds. Simple and powerful.
Soul Affinity, A.Y. Chao, Immersion Grad, Golden Heart Finalist
“Get her out here. Now.” Vandenberg’s voice exploded from the intercom, all pissy and pompous and panties-in-a-twist.
Deep Editing Analysis:
That cliché was amplified with what I call a rhetorical device combo. She combined two rhetorical devices, alliteration (pissy, pompous, panties) and polysyndeton (many ands with no punctuation), and she gave the sentence a compelling cadence too.
- My B Positive blood began to race. “O Positive can donate to B Positive. So there could be a link to the blood bank break-ins.”
- Anthony flipped onto his back, splayed his legs, and snored like a drunk with severe allergies and sleep apnea.
Angelo was short, chubby, and Puerto Rican. His clothes were louder than Tara’s laugh, and he wore more oil in his deep-black hair than flowed through the engine of my Mustang. They were a match made in tacky heaven.
Evil's Unlikely Assassin, Jenn Windrow, Multi-Immersion Grad
White granite floors. White granite walls. White granite pillars. All gleaming like a freshly polished fang.
Love how Jenn themed that cliché play. Smart.
Sharing Hunter, Julie Glover, Multi-Immersion Grad, Cruising Writers Grad, Golden Heart Finalist
- Before: The plan formed quickly.
After: The perfect plan zip-lined into my brain.
- No Before, Just an After: I grinned and gave her a kiss-my-sass wink.
The power of playing on rhyming words. Ass/sass. Fun!
- I could eat a horse, a stable, and the rest of the barn.
- Or maybe I’ve had this emotional baggage for so long it’s sick of riding the carousel.
- He gives me a long look and I freak out on the inside in case he’s found me out. But he shakes his head and like a lucky fish, I’m off the hook and back in the river.
Fresh writing carries power.
CEO for Hire, Lisa Wells, Multi-Immersion Grad
- It had been a while since Isabella had locked stilettos with someone, but this chic's four-inch Louboutins were about to become hell-scraping flats.
- "I'm telling you, Grandma Patti, the guy thinks he's a nine-day wonder, but he's really just a nine-day blunder. There is no way he's my soul mate. You need to recheck your algorithm."
- The air whooshed out of her lungs when she read his reply. Pardon my emoji, but I think I love you.
“It breaks my heart that you don’t remember me. Not bad. Not like a complete break. More like a hairline fracture.”
The way Darynda amplified that cliché makes me laugh every time.
The Dirt on Ninth Grave, Darynda Jones, Multi-Immersion Grad, NYT Bestseller, USA Today Bestseller
Darynda and I worked on Ninth Grave in her first Immersion class. I remember our late night editing. Working with Darynda and her characters is always crazy-fun.
The Set Up: Cookie spilled coffee on a customer and started dabbing at his crotch.
Before: When she came to her senses and realized where her hand was, she…
After: When she realized she had her hand on his erector set, she stilled, stood, and stammered.
Deep Editing Analysis: We avoided a cliché and added specificity (erector set) that included a big time hit of humor with the play on words. Darynda loaded the last part of the sentence with alliteration.
Why use rhetorical devices like alliteration and assonance and polysyndeton? Because they often make the cadence compelling. Because the repetition, the rhyming vowel sounds, and the rhythm add power. Because they make writing sound award-winning cool.
Margie grads may have noticed I used polysyndeton in the first sentence of that paragraph. They probably noticed I used alliteration in the third sentence. They should have noticed the last three sentences of that paragraph created anaphora.
I encourage writers to take a long moment and give cliché-busting their best effort.
Rome wasn't built in a day. There's no time like the present to go all out and push harder. Time flies when you're having fun. And cliché-busting is more fun than falling off a log.
I shared a few more clichés, and I also shared my truth.
I hope you all find your clichés and overused word pairings. I hope you consider nixing or twisting or rewriting to add interest and power.
Kudos to the Immersion grads cited in the blog. Impressive writing!
As always – a big THANK YOU to the WITS gals for inviting me to guest blog.
THANK YOU ALL for dropping by the blog.
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Margie Lawson —editor and international presenter – teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners.
She’s presented over 120 full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as taught multi-day intensives on cruises in the Caribbean.
To learn about Margie’s 5-day Immersion Master Classes (in 2018, in Phoenix, Denver, San Jose area, Dallas, Yosemite, Los Angeles (2), Atlanta, and in Sydney, Melbourne, Bellbrae, and Coolangatta, Australia), Cruising Writers cruises, full day and weekend workshops, keynote speeches, online courses through Lawson Writer’s Academy, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit: www.margielawson.com