Let’s start with the official definition of “cliche” which is “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.”
The definition should be enough of an incentive for writers to do their best to kill those little buggers. You don’t want your writing to lack original thought. However, ridding your writing of cliches is harder said than done (cliche intended).
First let’s talk about identifying cliches–because for authors, more than the familiar phrases can fall under the umbrella of cliche. Then, let’s talk about alternative approaches to consider when you are trying your best not use a cliche.
Idioms vs. Cliches
By definition, idioms are phrases that don’t make literal sense but everyone understands what they mean anyway (ex. raining cats and dogs). Both idioms and cliches are phrases used in everyday language.
Cliches don’t have to be phrases that make no contextual sense. For example, as hot as molten lava makes sense without someone explaining it to you. Whereas, idioms tend to be specific to different cultures and would need to be explained to someone unfamiliar.
The biggest difference between the two is that cliches are overused and idioms might not be. In addition, cliches, in writing don’t have to be phrases. They can be any overused element such as settings, situations, or characters.
Clear as mud?
Cliches Can Be Common Phrases
Cliches can be common phrases. These are always tempting to use because they paint a clear picture which you know your readers will understand. There are scads of websites listing common cliches, even by genre. Google is your friend to help identify these.
Cliches Can Be Common Situations
Cliches can be situations characters fall into which everyone can see coming because it happens so often. For example, a work romance where they end up secreting away in the supply closet. Or in a horror, the car failing to start.
Cliches Can Be Common Settings
What settings in your genre are common? Is your mystery set in a house that looks like the one from Psycho? Is your romance set at a resort on the beach? Is your historical set in a castle? Settings aren’t always cliche, because writers most often set their books in locations that the characters would truly be in. Just watch out for the ones that are overdone. Try to go a different way that still makes sense.
Cliches Can Be Common Plots
The lowly farmer/bar maid/computer geek/orphan finds out they are “the one.” Think about that generic statement and then see how many story lines you know of that fit. Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Matrix. You see what we mean? Unless you have a unique twist on a common plot (like those three stories), try to avoid it.
Cliches Can Be Common Character Types
The plain jane, the mad scientist, the hooker with a heart of gold. We’re not saying don’t use these types of characters. In fact, in some genres common archetypes are used regularly and with great effect. The trick is to find that twist to how you use it.
APPROACHES TO CLICHES
It’s not that you aren’t allowed to use any cliches mentioned above. The trick is to make them your own, turn the cliche into something unexpected. In fact, when reinvented or acknowledged well, the cliche can become more effective for you. However, if you can’t use them well, then, yeah…don’t use them.
Pull the cliche out of the sentence entirely and ask yourself what you lose when it’s gone. If your answer is nothing, then you’re done.
If you remove the cliche and the sentence loses its meaning, then it’s time to rewrite. Try to determine what the cliche is conveying and then rewrite that sentiment/scene/idea in your own words.
Take the cliche and reinvent it or do something unexpected with it. For example “Absense makes the heart grow fonder.” There are a bunch of different ways to rework that. Absense makes the heart go wander. Absense makes the loins grow hotter. Absinth makes the mind go wander. And so forth. What twist can you put on the cliche you’re working on?
Acknowledge that you’re using the cliche. This can be a great comic relief moment. A fantastic example is in The Amazing Spiderman 2, when she pulls him into the supply closet he actually says, “This is the most cliche hiding place you could have chosen.”