At one time, they were clever. That’s why clichés catch on. Problem is, by the time they do catch on, writers have to work harder to avoid them.
When you attempt to describe something that’s flat, the first thought that comes to mind is probably "flat as a pancake." Something that’s smooth? "Smooth as a baby’s bottom." An ugly old theatre that puts on the best shows in town? "Don’t judge a book by its cover." Advice for a jilted lover? "There are other fish in the sea." As a writer, it’s your job not to take the easy road. You add nothing to literature by copying expressions that everyone’s already heard. If you love words, certainly you can work to find new combinations of them that will fit your purpose divinely.
When you’re writing a first draft, it’s inevitable that clichés and tired elements will find their way into your story. But that’s one of the prime reasons for editing. When you’re revising your work, be sure to ruthlessly hunt for this sort of dead weight and delete with fervor.
I was going over the copyedits of my next book, The Street-Smart Writer, when I came upon this sentence in a sidebar I wrote about Craigslist: “It’s like a newspaper classified section on steroids.”
I deleted it before it could make it to print and show everyone what an unoriginal writer I am. Why? Because everything’s "on steroids." Check Google for the phrase. You’ll find NASA describing "solar flares on steroids" and the next moon mission as "Apollo on steroids," a prison described as "Guantanamo on steroids," OpenTV as "TiVo on steroids"... heck, I was watching a gardening show on NBC the other day and heard a flower described as looking like another flower on steroids.
Certainly we can dig deep and come up with another way to describe "large" or "super-charged."
That Person Is Me
How many times have you read a story that’s ostensibly in third person, then by the end the writer reveals that he or she is the person the story was about?
It’s usually a traumatic story of some sort-- abuse, violence, rape, death of a child, drug addiction, prison-- and throughout the story, you’re clearly supposed to sympathize with the person who’s being written about. Then, a paragraph or two before the end, the writer says, in effect, "Ha ha, fooled you! It’s really all about me!"
Well, usually with more dignity than that. But it’s still an overused story device. First, readers can usually see it coming, and second, readers don’t typically like feeling "tricked" or manipulated. Every now and then it works, when it’s a real shocker-- like when the reader is led to believe that the person in the story is going to die, or when it seems inevitable that the story will not end happily. Those are exceptions, though. In general, just write it in first person (or third person) and don’t go for the "big twist ending."
Enough Food to Feed an Army
When someone cooks for the holidays, someone else is going to say, "There’s enough food here to feed an army!" Why always an army? I mean, if there’s enough food to feed an army, there’s also enough to feed: a school full of kids, a concert audience, a sports team, the U.S. Senate, a choir...
Don’t fall back on this one in your writing. Pick something that hasn’t been done to death.
The Energizer Bunny
On that same note, when someone is energetic or shows great stamina, why does the Energizer Bunny always have to be the comparison?
Irvine World News says 2003’s police officer of the year is the Energizer Bunny (http://www.irvineworldnews.com/Astories/feb27/officer.html).
Henrico County Board of Supervisors call themselves "better than the Energizer Bunny" (http://www.co.henrico.va.us/manager/hen901/page6.htm).
Tonya Harding compares herself to the Energizer Bunny, too (http://www.boston.com/sports/other_sports/boxing/articles/2005/01/26/from_the_rink_to_the_ring/).
I’m sure Energizer’s ad team is thrilled by how their creation has infiltrated our daily language, but really, we can do better than this. Let the bunny rest.
God Works in Mysterious Ways
This is a cop-out phrase for most things we can’t explain. Leave it out. It’s not "deep" and it doesn’t add anything to the story.
Hate It When That Happens
I accidentally superglued my finger to my face today. I hate it when that happens.
Did you laugh? No? Neither will your readers. This expression was probably funny the first two or three times you heard it or read it. After that, it’s not surprising anymore-- and therefore, not effective. The best you’ll get is a smirk, and if your goal is to be funny, aim higher than a smirk.
The Moral of the Story
If you’re going to tell a story that has a moral, don’t spell out the moral, especially with a cliché.
For example, if you’ve just written an essay about surviving a horrible situation and finding a way to use that experience to help others, don’t end it with "What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger." That cheapens the story you just told.
Trust your reader to "get" the moral, provided you told the story well. Don’t lean on clichés to make your point for you. Lean on the strength of the story itself, and the lesson you want to impart will be clear to the reader. Better yet, readers will feel more respected if you trust them to interpret, rather than feeding them the point as if you think they’re too dumb to get it.
If you have to wake up really early (or stay up really late), please find another phrase to express your annoyance about it. "Ungodly hour" has been used and abused. Let’s help it retire.
* Clichés in Fiction
Dogs as Goodness Meters
If there is a dog in a movie or novel, this dog will always know who is good and who is bad. The dog will bark at the bad person (or bite, or chase) and snuggle up to the good person, hence helping our hero figure out whether to (a) date the person, or (b) trust the person with boatloads of money. Can we take this high responsibility away from the dog, please?
Throwing Alarm Clocks
I can’t count how many screenplays I’ve read where the first scene begins with the hero grumpily awakening and throwing the alarm clock across the room. Honestly, if the hero did this, he’d need to buy a new alarm clock every day-- which makes me think he must be rich and have an anger management problem.
Yes, we all get the urge to smash our alarm clocks. But really, how many times have you physically done it?
Also, unless you’re going to do something really original with it, we don’t need to see the scene where the hero wakes up, stumbles around his dirty room, brushes his teeth, and scratches his butt. Take us right to the action.
People Don’t Vomit That Much
One of the things that irks me most in fiction is the exaggeration of vomit. I’ve noticed this trend most in screenplays, but also in novels. I don’t like it, but I accept it when vomit scenes occur during situations when people really are likely to get sick (when they’re drunk, on a plane, going through chemotherapy, etc.). However, the emotion-induced vomiting has to go.
Like the alarm clock example, you may feel sick when you see something disgusting, or when something awful happens, or when you get nervous, but how often do you actually throw up due to a strong emotion?
"Are you on crack?" "What are you smoking?" "Are you high?"
Really, people do surprising things for reasons other than being stoned. Yet when someone says something shocking, a common reaction is to question whether that person is on drugs.
Resist the urge to do this in dialogue. It’s overplayed.
Whether you’re writing a novel or a newspaper article, earn your right to call yourself a writer. Take the time to find the overused words in your work, replace them with your insights, and prove your dedication to the craft.
Jenna Glatzer is the editor in chief of http://www.absolutewrite.com/ and the author of a bunch of books. Her latest is the children’s picture book Hattie, Get a Haircut! Check it out at http://www.jennaglatzer.com/.