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The blog of Stephen Arnott (aka S J Arnott). Writer of the Leofric Dark Age adventures and Jack Bleacher.

Clichés, and how to avoid them

Stephen Arnott

Do clichés leave you fuming?

Do clichés leave you fuming?

We’ve probably all read a book or watched a movie where we’ve discovered we have the power of premonition – because we know exactly what line the character is going to come out with next…

We've got company.
We’re going to get through this.
We need to talk.
I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
You’ve got to be kidding me!
We can do this!
Make it stop!
Gentlemen, it's been an honour serving with you...

To the ranks of these overused dialogue snippets, we can add hackneyed idioms such as:

Fuming with rage.
Ace up her sleeve.
Look on the bright side.
Armed to the teeth.
Back against the wall.
Grin and bear it.
Bone chilling.
In over his head.
White as a sheet...

And if you did guess what was coming next, you don’t feel pleased about it; you feel disappointed; let down by the writer’s deficit of imagination. It’s almost as if the line was churned out by a writing robot loaded with tired phrases. I’ve seen movies and read books where the same familiar lines are batted back and forth like the ball in tennis match I’ve already watched a dozen times. It can be depressing.

The reason that clichés plague so much writing is because their familiarity makes them virtually invisible — we hardly notice them when they arrive and, once they've nestled down in the text, the eye of the incautious writer tends to skim over them in re-writes.

But the wary writer is vigilant...and ruthless. During a read-through, if any phrase gives you a sense of déjà vu, stop for a moment and see if you can think of a better, brighter way of expressing the same thing. Sometimes there won’t be — the cliché might be the most accurate, apt and economic way of getting across your idea, in which case, chalk it up as a draw and move on. But usually there’s something better waiting in the wings.

For example, ‘waiting in the wings’ is what I’d call a cliché. Can I improve on it? (No point replacing one cliché with another, so ‘Up your sleeve’ won’t do.) How about ‘there’s something better waiting to skydive onto the page’? Meh. It might not be Shakespeare, but at least it’s fresh.

Beware the cliché. Seek and destroy.

(Image: PathDoc c/o Shutterstock)