WoW: Conquering Clichés

Tried and true.

That could be said of clichés, yes.

Everyone knows what they mean, making the message being conveyed as clear as a bell . . . but as dull as dishwater.

So, what’s a writer to do about those pesky clichés? Avoid them like the plague, right?

Yup! But that’s easier said than done. Those stale sayings seem to sneak into our stories like a thief in the night.

Have no fear. There is hope.


Three Tips for Dealing with Clichés

1) Write your own.

A fun way to deal with clichés is to create fresh ways of conveying the same thoughts contained in them.

I have a scene in my historical romance in which my hero says something to the heroine in front of her young daughter, something his mother deems inappropriate for a child. I wanted his mother to give him a reminder to watch his words.

The cliché that came to mind was, “Little pitchers have big ears.” Eager to avoid using it, I put a new spin on it.

“Son, I don’t think now is the time for this.” Mrs. Rutledge pursed her lips and inclined her head toward Tildy. “Little pitchers needn’t be filled with sour milk.”

2) Make them part of a character’s way of speaking.

I have a barber in the story who is one of the hero’s good friends. Abe has a down-to-earth way of speaking, one that includes interesting sayings and clichés. I establish his voice the first time he appears.

The following is from a scene in which the hero arrives late at the barbershop, clearly preoccupied with thoughts of the heroine.

Abe Fitzsimmons rested his clasped hands on his round middle. “Why, I do declare, Miles Rutledge. You’re later than a snowstorm in July. And what kept you? Or is it who?”

Since I establish Abe as one who uses colorful speech, he can get away with using clichés because that’s part of his character. I’m able to have other characters use them on occasion by making reference to Abe. In the following paragraph, the hero comes inside out of the rain and responds to the heroine’s inquiry.

“I’m fine.” He stepped though the tarpaulin and let it go. A gust of wind sent it flapping, flinging water over them both. “What a violent rainstorm, a real duck drencher as Abe would say.”

3) Use them sparingly.

Every now and then a cliché, when used intentionally, can be just the thing. My favorite example, as a romance writer, is the phrase, “I love you.” Those three little words are used so often they could be classified as a cliché, but since that particular saying carries a wealth of meaning, who cares, right?

• • • • •

I wanna know . . .

Do you find clichés hiding out in your manuscripts?

What techniques do you use to deal with clichés in your writing?

Do you have some before and after examples of clichés you’ve given a new twist?


About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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13 Responses to WoW: Conquering Clichés

  1. I like your take on cliches, Keli. Never thought to use them as part of a character’s character. As for putting a new twist, my DH says that I mix sayings, so that should be easy enough. Of course, that’s a character trait too!

  2. Liz Selvig says:

    Hi Keli,
    Love your post on cliche’s. I try desperately to avoid them by spending many long stretches during my writing time trying to think of fresh similes. I’ve come up with some great ones and some real clunkers. The cliche’ I changed that remains my favorite is one where my hero, a research scientist, is watching the heroine, a wealthy socialite and he thinks she isn’t the “happy-go-ditzy” person he thought she was.

    This is definitely one of the challenges writing presents that I love!

  3. I find I use cliches too much in my own conversations. I think when I stop using them myself, I’ll find it easier to avoid them in my MS. I no longer use them in my MS, but until it was pointed out to me by a writer’s blog, I was unaware. Thank you for a great post.

    • Keli Gwyn says:


      I think most of us use clichés on a regular basis. They are a kind of verbal shorthand. Our listeners know exactly what we mean when we say something like “birds of a feather . . .” Often, as in the case of this example, we don’t even have to complete the cliché. Thus, they serve a useful purpose in spoken language.

      Unfortunately, as you pointed out, using clichés in our speech becomes a habit, and we unwittingly slip them into our writing. I had to train myself to watch out for them, but they still sneak in, sly little buggers. =)

  4. P.S. Thank you for the movie, Sabrina. I enjoyed it very much.

  5. Walt M says:

    Keli, I’ve never thought of using them as part of a person’s character. However, when I’ve used cliches, I tried to make it sound native to the country my characters are in. You can be cliched when you say “Anyone can make a mistake.” However, the Japanese proverb of “Even monkeys fall from trees” sounds original.

  6. LoRee Peery says:

    Keli, I’ll have a secondary character spout off a cliché once in a while. A critique partner may sometimes tell me one of my descriptions is a cliché. Basically, once I’m aware, I search for a catchy turn of phrase or a different way to get the point across. Good Wednesday topic, as always.

  7. Ha ha! Very cute. 🙂

    Helpful tips, though. Thanks!

  8. Cathy West says:

    Yes!! Ugh, I fall into this trap ALL the time!! But I am getting better at pulling up short then changing things up a bit, or ripping that sucker right out of there! I think perhaps we do put cliches in our writing because we’re so used to hearing them – people do actually talk like that! But I like your idea of putting your own twist on them!

  9. When cliches so perfectly express something that we’re trying to say it’s understandable that they’re the first phrases to come to mind. I don’t worry about them in first drafts, but during revisions I try to find more original words. It’s surprising how many of them *slip through the cracks.* 😉

    The Authonomy website has an extensive list of cliches that I read through periodically as a refresher:

  10. I never find cliches hanging out in my manuscript, but my editor and beta readers find them every single time.

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