Follow blog by email

Cozying up to Clichés

Cozying up to a French cliché.

I’m a great user of clichés – in the first draft.  I write quickly to get ideas down before my mind overworks them – and clichés pour out onto the page.

Clichés are first thoughts – the phrases we use in speech to put feelings into easy words, the phrases that our minds insert to complete another person’s sentence.  Clichés are so familiar they’re a barrier to digging deeper into feelings and motivation.  By writing clichés down I get these predictable thoughts out of the way.  The next step is to examine them – and change them. 

Here’s an example from Book Two:  

When I saw she wasn’t a phantom, I breathed a sigh of relief. 

This is a clichéd reaction.  A reader could predict the end of this sentence.  It denies the character the chance to experience something new and it stops the story from evolving.

Here are some ways I use clichés to dig beneath the surface.

Flip It        

This is one of my favourite writing tricks.  I flip things all the time, including clichés:

When I saw she wasn’t a phantom, I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief. I …

… felt aggrieved that I’d fallen for a psychic trick.  Again.

… realised my hand had just slapped her across the face.

… wondered what lie she was about to concoct to explain her appearance.

… felt my relief flip to anger. Then impotence. How was I going to get rid of her?

By flipping the cliché, the mind allows the character to experience a new reaction – often something unexpected.  This opens up other possibilities for the story.  In a redraft, the words didn’t breathe a sigh of relief would be deleted.  The cliché has done its job.

Change the Words

This also bends the cliché out of alignment and leads to fresh thoughts:

When I saw she wasn’t a phantom, I breathed a wordless curse. She hadn’t finished with me yet.

When I saw she wasn’t a phantom, I choked back a sigh of relief. A shadow just passed behind her eyes and I knew I couldn’t trust her.

When I saw she wasn’t a phantom, I tried relief but it didn’t work. Phantom or not, she was trouble.

Dig Deeper

Notice the cliché as a shallow thought and start digging for a deeper reaction.

When I saw she wasn’t a phantom …

I watched her approach with a new sense of dread.  She was real.  She was here.  And she was smiling at me.

I noticed something even stranger about her.  Strange and scary.

… I remembered something my mother used to saythen wished I hadn’t. Mum was dead. I was on my own.

Trying to avoid clichés is a form of resistance and getting beyond them to fresh ideas works better if I embrace them, get those comfortable feelings that they represent onto the page, then go looking for an edge.