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Why the word cliche shouldn't bristle your fur

First of all, I’m going to be super cool and point out the dictionary definition of the word cliché, because it is sometimes used incorrectly. So according to

1. a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox.
2. (in art, literature, drama, etc.) a trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.
3. anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse.

I’ve seen a lot of people get up in arms (see how I just used a cliché phrase there?) about the word cliché being used to describe writing. But if someone’s telling you there’s a cliché element to your plot, your characters sound like all the others out there, or you use too many phrases like “blind as a bat”, then maybe, instead of getting angry, listen.

Mixing things up makes your descriptions more vivid, your characters more relatable, and you’re your plot more exciting. You just can’t do sparkly vegetarian vampires with eyes that change color depending on their hunger who fall for “plain” human girls. You can do vampires, but you have to do them your own way, or else alarm bells will go off in the heads of anyone you describe your plot to.

Whether anyone comments or not, it’s always a good idea to make sure you’re staying away from clichés, where you can. (Obviously, they’re never 100% unavoidable. Sometimes a cheerleader really is mean. Sometimes “there’s no place like home” is the only way to say what you mean.) But instead of trying to convince yourself that “everything’s a cliché” or “nothing is a cliché” (my two least favorite attitudes—ever), convince yourself that you can be unique.

Because you can. You really can.
Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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  1. Great post Kaitlin!

    I totally agree. No idea is truly unique, its really about taking something and putting your own twist to it!

  2. "convince yourself that you can be unique.
    Because you can. You really can."
    Awesome words.

  3. The greatest risk with cliche is that you will lose your reader, not because the story isn't good, but because they stop paying attention.

    For a story to keep the reader's interest it has to use language that engages. Clichés don't engage, because they are too familiar. For example, who *really* notices any individual people riding the third or fourth yellow school bus when a line of five or more drive past? After the second we tend to stop paying attention and simply wait for the caravan to pass. BUT, if each bus was a different color or had a unique banner waving on its side, then each one would stand out and get its own special attention as it passed by.

    That being said, embellishments (like colors and banners) should be done sparingly and with intention. At the risk of making your writing too flashy, don't go for *flash* at all. Just tell your story. The most important thing is to avoid saying what you want to say in the same way everyone else says it (cliché). Otherwise your readers are likely to think they've already heard it all before and let your book pass by with the rest of the caravan.

  4. I'm one of those writers who gets a bit ruffled at the mere mention of being cliched. To me this translates to: "Your writing sucks and is unorginal." With that being said, I think it's almost impossible to come up with "original" ideas. However, as Kaitlin mentioned, you could take a classic story line and put a new spin on it. I know this has been done for Alice and Wonderland, Romeo and Juliet (of course), and a few other traditional tales. I'm currently looking for a classic story that I can "retell" with my own vision. :)

  5. Great post, and great comments, John & Pam.

    As far as catchphrase-type cliches are concerned, I try to bleach away every single one -- in my second draft onward. I think exchanging tired phrases and less inspiring word choices with more exciting ones is a crucial part of revisions, but allowing ourselves to move on is an important part of rough drafting. Sometimes you can't think of a creative alternative in the moment, but you will later. If we wrestled with our rough drafts forever, we'd never finish a novel.
    /end tangent

  6. Wonderful post.
    Cleaning out those cliches can be difficult at times and writers have to put some serious thought into saying something in a fresh way that they can be certain will still bring the right thought or action across to the reader.

  7. Love this post! While it's not always possible to avoid cliches, it IS always possible to put your own spin on them. ('Cause really, is there even a single story out there anymore that hasn't been done in some way in the past?)

  8. That wasn't a tangent, Kirsten. It was completely on topic and exactly how I deal with my cliches. Rough drafts are no place to wrestle for hours - or even minutes - over one phrasings. Jot down what you want to say so you can move on and come back to it in subsequent drafts.

    As for cliche ideas, I'd agree that, as usual, it's all in the way you tell the tale. :)

  9. I tend to weed the cliches out in later drafts. At least that's my intention.

    Sometimes I think about a specific cliche and just try to twist it or use it in a way that in unexpected but mostly I try to eliminate them.

  10. Ditto on the rough draft thing.

    It's the big concept clichés people seem to get "up in arms" about. Old concepts can certainly be revived with a new spin, or a new voice, but it's got to be good.

    That's one of the many reasons I will never write a story about a young boy going to wizard school. Oh, someone could do it again, and do it well, and originally. But definitely not me. :)

  11. The easiest way to avoid anything cliche is to ask yourself "What if"

    Answered enough times, and you will have a completely unique concept that no one will accuse you of being cliche about!

  12. I agree on the rough draft thing too, Kirsten. It's definitely not something to worry about then!


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