Wednesday, 1 February 2012

"Hook, Line and Stinker" - Charley's Guide to Cliches, and How To Avoid Them

There is nothing better than being immersed in a beautifully crafted scene. The words flow seamlessly, leaving us revelling in the beauty of the descriptions and wishing that the mouth-wateringly delicious dish being shared by the characters would somehow materialise into our empty fingers. For a little while, the real world fades away, and we are where all readers love to be - somewhere else.

Then, out of nowhere, comes a glerk! and we come crashing back into the real world, bottoms numb and brains slightly confused by our long absence. Our eyebrows rise, Spock-style, into mid-air, and we scan the page, looking for whatever little demonic creature it was that tugged us from our reverie.

And there it is. Sitting in the middle of the page, an ugly little lump, a grouchy little boil that, no matter how much we glare and snarl and pelt it with imaginary pointy things, continues to irritate us simply by its existence.

I speak, of course, of cliches.

Whether you read a lot, a little, or - like me - too much for most people to consider you healthy, odds are that we've all met a cliche somewhere. Heck, we've probably even met the same ones, whether it be in a critique of a philosophical passage by Plato, a bodice-ripping historical thriller, or even the prologue to your  Geography textbook. You know the types: "stick out like a sore thumb", "in the nick of time", "by the skin of your teeth", "in the same boat" .... dare I go on?

It seems odd that, no matter how many times we tell ourselves that we like things to be original - either as writer or reader - we always find ourselves coming across these little demons. They have the unfortunate property of sticking in one's brain like an embarrassing birthday memory, and - I can verify this from personal experience - whenever one is having trouble describing a situation, they seem to be the first thing that pops into one's head.

Here's a Top Ten list of the most annoying cliches found in literature today, compiled on from a list sent in by readers:

  • all walks of life
  • at all times
  • leave no stone unturned
  • lock, stock, and barrel
  • calm before the storm
  • long arm of the law
  • never a dull moment
  • cry over spilled milk
  • patience of Job
  • paying the piper
  • give the devil his due
  • selling like hot cakes
  • hook, line, and sinker
  • stick out like a sore thumb
  • in the nick of time
  • winds of change
  • in the same boat

Familiar faces, non?

Pity really, as they're so easy to avoid. Here are three simple steps that I would recommend to anyone struggling to rid themselves of those hellish little hackneys:

Step One: Look Before You Leap.
When you come to one of those "umm..." moments, stop and think carefully about what you want to say - don't just type the first thing that comes into your head. Think about what you really want to say, and odds are it's nothing like the old chestnut that's just trotted off your tongue. It may look a bit funny on the page but, trust me, it's always a ten-tonne-truck better than a cliche.

Step Two: Here Be Dictionaries.
Vocabulary is vital, not just to fiction writers, but to anyone who's ever had to write a school essay, university thesis, or a letter to aged old Aunt Mable saying thank you for the crocheted lumpy thing she sent you for Christmas last year. However, voracious and mind-blowingly intelligent though you may be, even you probably aren't aware of all the phenomenally intriguing phrases you can find in the dust-bunny infested Oxford English Dictionary and Thesaurus sitting on your shelf. So, from time to time, pick it up and have a look. Of course, this doesn't mean you have to read it from end to end - it's not a thrilling read.
Don't ask me how I know that ...

Additional note: Thesauruses (Thesauri?) are also brilliant for this. If you're looking for an alternative for a specific word, rather than something further removed, they really are the writer's bread and butter.

Step Three: Do the Pratchett!
Any fans of the ever-prolific and uber-awesome Sir Terry Pratchett will know what I mean when I say that he is a true inspiration when it comes to original prose. If you haven't read any of his books then, as well as bludgeoning you over the head and demanding that you do, I will also make a point of showing you what a fantastic mind he has for avoiding cliches, even in the trickest situation.

But, if Pratchett isn't your thing, why not look elsewhere. Par example, the late and awesome Douglas Adams wrote this little dandy, which is one of my favourite descriptive phrases of all time:
The ship hung in the air in much the same way bricks don't.

Depending on the tone of your book, you may or may not be able to be quite as outlandish, but it's worth bearing in mind that the beaten track is not the only way to describe something. Try looking at it from a different angle, try stating what something isn't like rather than what it is like ... or just make it up. That's always fun too :)


Hope that helps! Anyway, I'd best be off. You guys have a fantastic day and, remember, avoid cliches ... like the plague! *insert deranged cackle here*

- Charley R


  1. The brick remark isn't, however, a Terry Pratchett quote - it's from the Hitchhiker's Guide. Therefore your paragraph is misleading.

    Actually, I've rarely come across those clichés. Some of them more than others, but nothing I read really uses "long arm of the law" (what is that supposed to mean?) or "give the devil his due", to name just a couple.

    1. It's a phrase used a lot in Westerns,meaning that you can't escape the law (police/sherrif/deputy) sometimes when the sherif can't get you then he might hire a mercenary who can, thus extending his reach (and having a long arm)... That's my theory anyway. I couldn't find much on the web with a quick search and that's what it means to me... here on the west side of the big pond.

      :} Cathryn

    2. Whoopsie ... paragraph amendment incoming!

  2. Wow I'm glad I've read Terry Praccett (and Douglas Adams). :}

    I find turning cliches like
    "hindsight is 20/20"
    into fun and new phrases, like
    "the sky is always clear when you look behind you"
    (that right Spook?)

    :} Cathryn

    1. *approves highly* Yuss yuss yuss *grins*

  3. That. Was. Spectacular. Thank you so much for a rousing, entertaining, completely original post against cliches :) And now I'm gonna track me down some Pratchett to read....

    1. Yay! A convert!
      Aww *blushes* I'm really glad you think that - thank you so much :)