“Writing is really very easy. Tap a vein and bleed onto the page. Everything else is just technical.” Derrick Jensen
Why Clichés are frowned upon
Try not to get all bent out of shape here, but it’s time to talk about clichés and how they’re breaking the bank. Cry me a river, build a bridge, and get over it, because we’re going to nip clichés in the bud right now. Before you make a break for it, hear me out.
Most of the phrases in that last paragraph are clichés. The problem with clichés is that they’re subtle; you may not even realize you’re using them, but readers might.
What’s a cliché?
A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.
Let’s say you’re writing a fantasy novel that takes place in an old world. Maybe this imaginary place is far from Earth, or maybe it’s Earth from thousands or millions of years ago. Let’s assume one of your ancient characters has a line of dialogue. Let’s say she says something like this:
“You are hanging me out to dry, my king,” Sera said.
Okay, this is not horrendous. We can assume that people probably dry things in this ancient world, because all you need is sunlight and air, and probably the thing they will be drying is animal meat for later consumption. Sera is probably comparing herself to a future meal, concerned for her own safety, or perhaps feeling manipulated or betrayed, or treated like a disposable object. But there’s still a problem with this. “Hang me out to dry” is a cliché, which, as we know, is a phrase that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.
This means that your character is using language that is overused now, and has been heard or read dozens of times by readers. Okay, let’s give her another chance: maybe she’s the first one to ever use that phrase and she just invented it. That’s a reasonable interpretation, right? Well, even if she did, readers probably won’t connect those dots. See, they’ve already heard it too many times, and probably from characters who live in contemporary times.
If I were editing this book, I would change this line. The content of the dialogue is fine, but the message can be conveyed in a different way. The whole point is to create a world where characters operate under their own unique social guidelines, and using clichés from modern literature is not an effective way to do this. Besides, when was the last time you heard a character in A Song of Fire and Ice use a cliché like that? G.R.R.M. works hard to keep his universe in tact, and you should do the same.
Where Did All These Clichés Come From?
Cliché comes from a French word referring to a verb that means attaching type to a movable plate. Basically, the word implies that clichés are a ready-made phrase. Clichés are derived from actual actions and practices that are later used as metaphors in writing. Here’s an example if you’re not sure what I mean:
Bite the Bullet
We all know this one, but the origin of this phrase comes from field surgeons handing wounded soldiers a bullet to chomp on in order to distract them from the painful operation. The soldier has to go through the operation in order to live, so he bites a bullet in order to endure it.
Writers take these common phrases and turn them into metaphors for other activities. Example:
Tommy was dreading finals, but he knew he had to bite the bullet and grind through the study session anyway.
Tommy’s not literally biting a bullet. For clichés, think of an imaginary “so to speak” attached to every phrase. He bit the bullet, so to speak.
But what if we took the cliché out of this line? Would it kill the narrative?
Tommy was dreading finals, but he knew he had to grind through the study session anyway.
Nope. Looks good to me. In fact, I prefer the second line because clichés tend to take readers out of the story. Clichés are like speed bumps. They often trigger unnecessary imagery that takes away from the realism you’re trying to achieve.
But Can’t I Use Clichés at All?
It definitely depends on what you’re writing. I’d avoid clichés for pretty much all fantasy, and probably most sci-fi. Clichés just don’t work for those genres; you’ve worked so hard to create a world only to throw readers out of it with your own writing.
But I can think of a few instances where clichés can work to your advantage. Mobsters, for instance, speak in clichés all the time. If you’re writing a crime thriller, you might want to draw on mafia dialogue from the past, because believe it or not, it’s extremely accurate. Although the tricky thing about mobsters is that they have their own language, and don’t typically delineate too far from what’s comfortable for them, so be careful in any instance.
My two basic rules for clichés are:
1. Never in narrative
2. Sometimes in dialogue, depending on the genre.
Publishers are incredibly wary of clichés, so if your manuscript is filled to the brim, so to speak, with them, you may want to get rid of them. At AMR Global Marketing, we’re very aware of what publishers look for, and we want to make sure your writing meets their criteria. As the senior editor at AMR Global Marketing, let me give your book the editing care it deserves.
Charlie is an editor who has worked with bestselling authors. Sporting an undeniable passion for writing and editing, he loves helping writers shine. With a bachelor’s degree in English at CSU Channel Islands and a meticulous eye for detail, Charlie believes in keeping the authors voice when polishing their story. Need your work edited? Click here to contact Charlie.