Stuck Inside a Cliché


First, don’t panic. We’ve all been there. You’re writing your latest poem or story, really feeling great. This is going to be your best work ever. Then suddenly, you feel yourself sliding down some sort of funnel, down, down, into a cliche. There’s a phrase that you’ve used before sticking out like a sore thumb. There’s a situation which you’ve seen a million times before in other, better stories. There’s a character type who’s practically a walking stereotype, whether it’s the Goth loner or the dumb cheerleader. Suddenly, your special, wonderful story is trapped in the realm of cliche.

It can feel pretty desperate, and also pretty disheartening, to find your work here. It’s kind of like being stuck in the doldrums; what you wanted to be special is just a litany of weary sameness. But there ARE ways to get yourself out of that cliche, to escape back into the world of originality.

The key to escaping the cliche is to understand what cliches are and where they come from. Cliches are a kind of shorthand in conversation. When having a chat with someone, we want to meet on common ground, and we also want to convey information quickly. So we use shortcuts, established, commonly known ways of shortcutting through stories or description. We’ll see we cried buckets, or that the guy was the most boring guy on the face of the earth. We’ll say the little girl was as cute as a button or that we jumped for joy. And in casual conversation, we make ourselves understood. It saves time.

But in creative writing, it’s just lazy to use a cliche; it demonstrates a lack of imagination. It shows that we aren’t working hard to make our language beautiful, special, or memorable. We’re just leaning on the same old crutches to limp our way through an over-familiar story.

To destroy the cliche, try deconstructing it. If you start pulling apart cliches, you’ll notice that few of them actually make much sense. Cute as a button? What does that even mean? Are buttons cute? Try going deeper. When you say someone is cute as a button, you generally mean that he or she is cute because he or she is small, and looks intricately made, like a well-crafted little button. So can you say that in your own words? Can you convey that smallness, that exquisite detail, in a new way?

To destroy the cliche, get to the heart of what you are REALLY trying to convey. Pick it apart like an animal and study the organs and entrails. Then start again, going for the heart of the meaning you want.

Remember that detail is a cliche’s worst enemy. Cliches are inherently vague; they rely on generic situations to work, rather than specific ones. But good writing is precise and specific and enables us to picture things in detail. So to fight your next cliche, get detailed. Show us the color of the sky and the smell of the air and the feel of the clothing on your back. Don’t just say your character was sweating like a pig; show those trickles of sweat running down her back and pooling in her collarbones. Show something, instead of vaguely alluding to it, hoping we’ll get the gist.

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