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Avoiding the dreaded 'Cliché'

Updated: Aug 19, 2018

Did your creative writing teacher tell you to “avoid using clichés like the plague”? Did you hit her with a chalkboard eraser after she said that? Here’s my advice about them. USE THEM, but only in your first draft, just to get the story down. Hopefully you aren’t self-editing while you’re creating. Take the advice of Stephen King and “Write the first draft with the door closed.” In that creation period, misspell, use wrong punctuation, use awful word choices. Do whatever you must, to get the idea on paper. I would bet real money that, if we could read the first drafts of classics — both historical and contemporary — we would be shocked at how awful they are. (Twilight doesn’t count. From a writer’s standpoint, it’s horribly written — and STILL got published — but that’s the exception, not the rule.) Only YOU will see that first draft. From then on, however, all bets are off. (CLICHÉ.) Once you dive into the second and following drafts (and there will be PLENTY, I promise you) then you re-write the clichés. Try to make them original, but if you can’t, convey what you want to another way. For example:

The farmer came up behind his daydreaming son, smacking him upside his blonde head. “Yer as useless as a one-legged man in an ass kickin’ contest. Git ta work.”

The ‘one legged man’ bit is trite, boring, and may well result in an eye-roll from your reader, as he or she wonders if you are that un-creative, or just plain lazy. Like I said, use it in the first draft, then fix it. Like this:

The farmer came up behind his daydreaming son, smacking him upside his blonde head. “Git busy, or I’m gonna stick this here shovel up yer ass, business end first.”

Better. Not great, but I don’t get paid for ‘great’ here.

All kidding aside, (CLICHÉ.) most of the normally overused phrases are great placeholders. When authors speak of ‘work’, they usually are referring to the re-writing process. The initial creative spark that ignites a story, is just that . . . initial. As you work through the layers of that first draft, tightening it up, finding out what works, weeding out what doesn’t, you may find a very different story emerging from what you had in mind originally. And that’s fine. Listen to your characters. They’ll tell you where to go. After all, this is THEIR story, not yours.

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