No writer likes to be predictable. But when we haven’t had a nap or our blood sugar gets a little too low, we find ourselves writing phrases like, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
And it had been going so well. Unfortunately, when we’re not thinking, we slip into the hackneyed, dried-out idioms and tropes of yesteryear.
But how do you know a cliché is a cliché when you write it—and how can you avoid it in such a way that your writing comes to life with vividness and originality? Here’s how to recognize clichés and make your writing feel more
like a breath of fresh air original.
What Is a Cliché?
If you’ve ever heard someone say “only time will tell” or “opposites attract,” then you’ve heard a cliché before. A cliché, in short, is an overused, hackneyed, or oft-repeated expression that’s gone stale.
But the true reach of the cliché definition doesn’t end at popular idioms or turns of phrase. It’s possible for entire themes to be clichéd—for example, to create characters who are clichés or use familiar plotlines that never break out of their tropes.
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Types of Clichés
“All’s well that ends well” was once a creative, original idiom from the mind of William Shakespeare. And it is original, or at least it was. But not the next five million times people used it.
One of the most-used examples of cliché in dialogue is just two words. Like many clichés, it started off as a good idea—once. “You’re late” is more creative than “hello,” after all. It suggests a familiarity between the characters, their relationship, their established routine.
But when every character says “you’re late” to start off a dialogue scene? It starts to lose its flavor.
A cliché doesn’t have to be one single line or sentence. It can be an entire concept derived from what was once an original take. Think of the hard-boiled private detective, the eccentric genius or mad scientist, the “jerk with the heart of gold,” the damsel in distress, the love interest from a dalliance in the past.
Cliché Examples in Writing
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
Ever wonder if a famous novel actually started with one of the most famous cliché examples? It did; Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time opens with a cliché. However, this was a deliberately-chosen cliché. By the 1960s, when the novel was published, it was already in the public lexicon. In making this deliberate choice, L’Engle not only winks at its young adult audience but seems to delight in making us expect a traditional story, which A Wrinkle in Time definitely is not.
Dune by Frank Herbert
If you’ve only ever experienced the plot of Frank Herbert’s Dune in movie theaters recently, you might have noticed that what was once original in the 1960s now seems like oft-repeated clichés. A prophesied “chosen one” of a protagonist? An alien desert planet controlled by an evil empire? “Houses” fighting against each other, vying for political control?
The Matrix, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones, all in succession. Yet Dune highlights the difference between familiar story scaffolding and original entertainment. Amateur writers might borrow these themes without offering their own twist, and thereby turn solid themes into clichés.
Clichés in Poetry
Where’er you find “the cooling, western breeze,”
In the next line, it “whispers through the trees”;
Yes, clichés in poetry were even around in the early 18th century, when Alexander Pope wrote the above lines about a familiar cliché: wind whispering through trees. In this case, Pope uses the clichés to set up a punchline, saying that whenever the wind whispers through the trees, “The reader’s threatened … with ‘sleep.’”
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Is there a more-used cliché in literature than spring rain? Yet in the hands of an artist like Eliot, we’re presented only with clichés when we’re supposed to notice them and how they contrast with the other lines. Spring lilacs out of dead land? Clearly, the imagery here demands closer scrutiny.
“Gazing Into My Eyes”
Finally, let’s start considering some bad clichés in writing. If you’ve ever read or written a poem that talks about how someone else “gazed into your eyes,” or into the “depths / bottom of my soul,” try to consider a poet like T.S. Eliot instead. Would he ever write that? No. In the hands of a skilled poet, clichés are tools for inversion and unpredictability. If you ever find yourself using refrains like these because they sound good, however, it’s worth reconsidering.
Clichés in Music
“California Gurls” by Katy Perry
Where the grass is really greener
Warm, wet n’ wild
There must be something in the water
Sippin’ gin and juice
Want a fun songwriting challenge? Go ahead—try to find a line in this song that doesn’t involve a cliché or, at the most generous, a pop reference of some sort. Even the title, “California Gurls,” seems like a deliberate misappropriation of what was once a fresh hit from the Beach Boys.
“I Gotta Feeling” by The Black Eyed Peas
Yes, just that one word. Fair enough—“I Gotta Feeling” isn’t the only song to wax lyrical about what a great night “tonight” is going to be. Even good songs do this one, from “We Are Young” by Fun or “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen. But after a certain point, we get it. You’re going to live like tonight is the last night of your life.
The Difference Between Cliché and Idiom
An idiom—or a common expression that doesn’t have literal meaning—can often become a cliché. For instance, the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” can be both an idiom and a cliché. So how do you separate the two?
To use another cliché, it’s how you use it. If you were to write some prose and have a first-person narrator explain that they don’t like to “judge books by their covers,” relying on an idiom to supply your meaning might border on cliché. Any time you use an idiom to such little effect that your audience barely notices it’s been used, it’s likely a cliché.
How to Use a Cliché
Even with the above said, we’ve seen some examples here of writers and poets who knew how to use clichés to their advantage. The key? Understanding the expectations ordinary clichés create and twisting them around to evoke fresh meaning.
- Play against our expectations: When T.S. Eliot speaks of “spring rain,” he’s not doing it in the isn’t-spring-wonderful way. Instead, it’s a cliché dropped into a cracked image of dull roots in his poem “The Wasteland.” Similarly, L’Engle’s use of “It was a dark and stormy night” is an almost-satirical opening to what will become a completely unexpected novel.
- Approach every cliché with awareness: Feel free to nearly break the fourth wall. For example, a single dad protagonist might wonder if he’s becoming an overprotective cliché. This is, itself, a way for the author to communicate the neurosis and paranoia of the protagonist.
Tactics to Avoid Relying on Writing Clichés
Want to avoid clichés entirely? There are a few things you can do:
- Put the manuscript aside for a while: The problem that creates clichés is their unconscious use. Editing your own manuscript with a fresh eye will help make the unconscious conscious, giving you the ability to spot clichés.
- Consult online tools: This is the 21st century, after all. There’s no reason you can’t lean on Cliché Finder to do some of the spotting for you.
- Turn a cliché into a challenge: If a cliché is bad or out of place, you have a puzzle you now have to solve. You want to communicate the same idea, but without relying on hackneyed phrasing. How do you do it? Turn it into that day’s writing challenge. Come up with an idiom all your own, or find another literary device that will suit your needs.
Don’t Be a Walking Cliché
Clichés exist for a reason. We wouldn’t wear them out if they weren’t useful in the first place.
At some point, every cliché was an original thought. The trick is to identify your bad habits. Spot when you lean on dried-out phrases and lazy clichés. Once you get good at spotting them, the fixes should be
as easy as pie easy.
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