9

Every writer knows the rule: Avoid clichés like the plague! Wait I can't say that, it is a cliché. Let me try again, I hate to beat a dead horse but... No that won't work either.

If you have ever listened to actual dialogue, it is filled with clichés, colloquialisms and generally poor grammar. I live in the South and can assure you that it is impossible to write realistic Southern dialogue without peppering it with slang, clichés, fragmented sentences and poor grammatical exposition.

Even stories are clichéd. There are a finite number of plots and most are very predictable. This blog discusses the need for originality:

A writer’s job is to write stories—not to steal or borrow them and, with a coat of fresh paint, pawn them off as original. http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/10-tips-to-bypass-cliche-and-melodrama

Yet it is totally contradicted by a recent article on plots. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/jul/13/three-six-or-36-how-many-basic-plots-are-there-in-all-stories-ever-written

and a literary scholar asserts the number of basic plots may be as few as seven:

According to Mr. Booker, there are only seven basic plots in the whole world -- plots that are recycled again and again in novels, movies, plays and operas. Those seven plots are: 1.Overcoming the Monster, 2.Rags to Riches, 3.The Quest, 4.Voyage and Return, 5.Rebirth, 6.Comedy and 7.Tragedy. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/15/books/the-plot-thins-or-are-no-stories-new.html

You generally only need to know the basic elements of a story to predict the ending. How many times have we guessed the ending of a blockbuster movie or a best selling novel?

This blog hits the nail on the head (oh geez another cliché) concerning clichéd dialogue:

The good news for those of who don’t like rules, is that their jurisdiction ends the moment you insert a quotation mark. The quote is like the county line of grammar enforcement. http://thewritepractice.com/want-write-better-dialogue-break-rules/

And this Reddit subgroup agrees that avoiding clichés in dialogue sounds stilted and unrealistic:

Have you ever read the kind of dialogue an author writes when s/he's trying to avoid all cliche? It makes all the characters sound like quirky English majors trying to come up with new phrases https://www.reddit.com/r/writing/comments/1w1d1z/are_cliches_and_commonly_said_phrases_acceptable/

Of course clichés can be overdone as pointed out on this definitive list: https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/definitive-list-of-cliched-dialogue-9b8f469bc305?gi=b63bb27731f

But I still think clichés have a time and a place in writing (I guess I am hopeless)

So why are writer's told to avoid clichés in their fiction writing?

  • I can't articulate this into a full answer but basically, there's a widespread misconception that "cliche = bad". – F1Krazy Nov 24 '17 at 17:21
  • I can't imagine Faulker's, Conan Doyle's or Mickey Spillane's writings devoid of clichés – Richard Stanzak Nov 24 '17 at 17:29
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    Remember that cliches have to come from somewhere. Back then they weren't cliches. They were just good storytelling. – Thomas Myron Nov 24 '17 at 17:59
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    I wonder if cliche could be part of one character's voice.... – DPT Nov 24 '17 at 18:03
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    I guess the problem is that there are many types of cliché. In your article you mention both linguistic and plot clichés. In my opinion linguistic clichés are fine, because they help the reader understand what's going on. Just be careful to not break the immersion and not to overuse. – FFN Nov 24 '17 at 18:15
9

This answer requires two parts, because it is important to note the difference between cliches in the plot, and overused phrases in dialogue. They might technically both be cliches (I'm not sure), but they are not the same thing. I will deal with cliches in the plot first.


Two Truths

The first thing to realize about cliches in the plot is that they work. That's the whole reason they are cliches. They've been tested over and over, and get the job done every time, usually in the simplest and most effective way possible.

The second thing to realize about cliches is that because they work, they have been used a billion times. You already know this. You know that because they have been used so much, readers can guess the endings of predictable plots. And that's the problem.

No one (at least no one in their right mind) wants to know the ending to a book before they read it, or especially while they're reading it. That just ruins the whole experience, especially if it's a mystery or something similar.

But worse than that is the staleness of the cliches. If you write with cliches in your plot, the reader is never surprised (unless it's at the sheer number of cliches). The twists are never shocking. The character's choices are never real. The whole thing is just a collection of well known scenarios and answers strung together by a few chapter headings. Most people don't want to read something they could recite from heart (obviously not true about everything, but you get the picture).

That's why cliches get a bad rep - because authors can (and sometimes do) use them as a crutch. The character needs to be driven? Kill off his dad! He needs to be conflicted about fighting the bad guy? The bad guy is his dad! Ah! A story!

Now it is important to keep the first thing I said, in mind: Cliches work. Cliches are not inherently bad. They are overused, and they are stale when relied upon, but they by themselves are not bad. In fact, some of them are tried and true story telling techniques. The trick is to know when to use them.

Using Cliches

A good rule of thumb is: 'if it benefits your writing, do it.' If the cliche is genuinely the best way to get from point A to point B in your story, use it. Don't rely on it, use it. There is a difference.

Relying on a cliche means that you can sit back, knowing exactly how things will unfold and that they will work perfectly. Using a cliche means that you break it down into what you need, and what is simply part of the package deal of the cliche.

And if it turns out that you need to use a cliche completely, then twists are your best friend. You know what the reader expects. Change it, if you can. Mix things up at the last moment. If there is absolutely nothing you can change, have your characters remark on/simply note the cliche. Acknowledging it tends to let the reader know, 'hey, I know it's cliche, but it's what worked. I'm not relying on it.'


Dialogue

A lot of your question deals with 'cliches in dialogue'. While I am not the master of all things cliched (thank goodness), I do not believe those are cliches. I believe they are colloquialisms or simply overused phrases. A cliche is a plot device. Masters in the way of cliches may correct me on this.

You are talking specifically about overused phrases. Here, your job is simple: Make sure you create characters who use these phrases, not characters who default to the phrases. Once again, it's the same idea of using the cliche as a crutch. We all use cliched phrases when we talk, but we rarely do so for no reason. Perhaps we could use a little more reason, but you get the point. It's fine for your characters to use these phrases if they make sense. If they are what the character would actually say.

At the same time, you also want to make sure the dialogue is readable. If I were to make a character who spoke exactly like members of my family, the reader would be lost within seconds.

tl;dr

Find the balance between necessary cliches, originality, acknowledging the cliches, and readability. Use cliches. Don't rely on them.

I hope this helps you!

  • Thank you for your excellent and detailed answer. Cliches related to plots to me seems more like a trope. I LOVE this site: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Tropes – Richard Stanzak Nov 24 '17 at 20:02
  • It teaches the writer what readers expect from a given plot. I assume that is what you mean when you say cliches work for plots. I am less sure about the cliches of speech, many blogs seem to react negatively toward the use of certain idioms, phrases and colloquialisms that I believe enhance dialogue. As long as it is realistic and what one expects from a stereotype character they work for me and hopefully others. So perhaps there is confusion about the word 'cliche', is it an idiom, a colloquialism, slang or simply an overused expression that conveys a near universal meaning. – Richard Stanzak Nov 24 '17 at 20:11
  • To be honest I haven't heard much against 'cliches' in speech. I believe the principle remains the same though: if it is what your writing requires, use it. As long as you aren't defaulting to the phrase, but are actually writing dialogue in character, I don't see how it could be harmful. Unless your readers are the authors of those blogs you mentioned. – Thomas Myron Nov 24 '17 at 22:49
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You have to make a distinction between plagiarism and familiar ground. Writers cover familiar ground all the time. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. It is familiar ground. It is not a cliche.

Writers stick to familiar ground because that is where they find the stories that people want to hear. Boy meets girl. Girl is captured by space aliens. Boy becomes a door to door fryingpan salesman in antarctica. That is not familiar ground. Nor is it a story anybody want to read. It has no logic, no shape. Its original. But it's boring.

Cliche is not about covering familiar ground. Cliche is about lazy writing. It is about drawing stock phrases out of your head because they are easy, not because they are apt. George Orwell in Politics and the English Language talks about writers seeing the world and writing what they see vs throwing stock phrase together without ever truly thinking through what they are trying to say. Cliche does not mean familiar. Cliche means lazy, dull, and not fully realized.

EDIT: Dialogue is not speech. Speech is fractured, repetitive, and largely trivial. Dialogue is whole, unique, and consequential. Speech is full of cliches. People talk lazily, often just because the cannot endure silence. That kind of talk is incredibly tedious to read. Dialogue is something quite different and the cliched nature of speech should have no impact on the way you write dialogue.

  • Yet most real conversation is full of cliches and much of it is unoriginal and inarticulate. I am beginning to see the writer of dialogue as a forty-niner panning for gold. Most of what he catches in his sluice is worthless, but occasionally he pulls out a nugget worth keeping. Our job as writers is to learn the best technique of panning to capture as many nuggets of speech worth keeping that captures the readers interest while telling a story. Some of those nuggets may be cliches, but only if they enrich the persona of our characters. Thanks Mark. – Richard Stanzak Nov 25 '17 at 12:58
  • I've added a para to address dialogue. – user16226 Nov 25 '17 at 13:07
  • I will agree with your comments for everyday dialogue, but there are still cases where dialogue is actually pretty concise. Legal, medical and science tend to be VERY boring because they in fact do leave out cliches and all the flaws of 'normal' communication. I personally find science/medicine/legal speech very interesting because they are so informative, but do concede that they are a tedious read for those not skilled in their unique arts – Richard Stanzak Nov 25 '17 at 16:43
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    Most medical dramas are totally inaccurate with their use of jargon. I will say Dr House does a decent job even if it is exaggerated, it is at least generally accurate. I pepper my novel with lots of medicine and science that most beta readers HATED. I hate to strip out what I considered to be elementary facts and words to get any positive response. I used to dislike Crichton's writing, but now I understand why his writing is so inaccurate; his editor was the real genius behind most of Crichton's success in my opinion. Sounding scientific isn't the same as being, I learned this the hard way. – Richard Stanzak Nov 25 '17 at 19:19
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    @RichardStanzak I'm a computer person in real life. I often laugh at the computer jargon on TV shows. Often they get a bunch of real "computer words", but then they string them together into sentences that make no sense at all. And then I think to myself, I suppose chemists laugh just as much at the chemistry and doctors laugh just as much at the medicine and so on. I remember reading once that the two police officers in a TV cop show set in Miami killed more people each season than the entire Miami police department combined did in real life. – Jay Mar 28 '18 at 20:54
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Why are clichés discouraged in fiction writing?

Neurology.

The first time someone said or wrote, "Why isn't anybody talking about the elephant in the room?" it was a surprising metaphor, and apt, and it evoked an image of an actual elephant in a room with people standing around ignoring it.

The first time someone said, "as big as a house," It was a good thing, people imagined a big house, and this worked.

The same may be true the first time each person hears such a cliché.

But, the brain learns things, and surprise and evoked imagination fades away. The brain learns to translate the cliché into standardized thought patterns, that no longer surprise, or evoke any imagination.

In short, they are boring placeholders for what have become boring concepts.

It is the job of the fiction writer to entertain the reader, by assisting and stimulating their imagination of a setting, characters, experience, wonder, and adventure. Boring is the opposite of the job, and because by repeated exposure clichés no longer evoke any new or clever imagination, they are spurned. Both in prose, and in dialogue.

As for plots, they are not clichés, they are patterns of action, but the specifics of the actions and characters within that pattern are new. Yes, the plot of a detective story is pretty standard, but every Sherlock Holmes story contains new surprises, different characters, a different mystery for the reader to solve (or be amazed that Sherlock solves it), etc. Every Rom Com has pretty much the same plot, but the details, dialogue, and problems are unique.

When they are not, we still call them derivative, ripoffs, imitations, etc.

Plots are not clichés, they are overall patterns of an order of events, a skeleton that is fleshed out by original work. A "twist" in a story is not a cliché, it all depends on whether it is a twist we have seen a dozen times, or a twist we have never seen (e.g. Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense).

3

I'd note that there's a difference between using cliches in dialog, and having a plot that is a cliche. But anyway ...

There are lots of tried and true plot lines. Anyone who watches a romance story and gets to the point where the hero and heroine have a fight, and starts biting her nails and saying, "Oh, I wonder if they'll get back together by the end of the story?" ... or someone who watches a TV show and gets to a scene where one of the main characters is in extreme danger, and cries out, "Oh no, is he going to get killed?" ... such people no doubt find the world a place full of mystery and wonder.

I remember being in the room when my daughter was watching some teen romance once. And the story started out with the popular super-jock guy bragging that he could make any girl the prom queen if he wanted, and his friends offer to make a bet on it, and he accepts the bet, and then of course they pick the ugliest, least popular girl in the the school ... And I said to myself, wow, let me see if I can predict how this story is going to go. I'm sure you're thinking the exact same thing: He tries to make her popular, it turns out that with the right clothes and hair style she's suddenly beautiful, in the course of it he falls in love with her and she falls in love with him, then she finds out about the bet and they have a big fight, he tells her how yes at first it was a bet but he really loves her, eventually he wins her back, then they win prom king and queen and it's a happy ending. Right? Is there any part of that that you didn't also predict? The only surprise in the movie was that in the end somebody ELSE won prom king and queen, which was a little bit of a twist I guess.

But you can make routine plots like that interesting by doing it well. Add a little twist here and there, make your characters interesting, make your dialog interesting, etc.

3

"Avoid Clichés" is a guideline, not a rule

It would be a mistake to understand that any use of any cliché is "wrong," as you humorously do in your question.

Clichés have certain problems (and certain strengths); understand what they are, and you'll better understand what the guideline is aiming at, and why it's good advice as a rule of thumb, even if there's no reason to follow it 100% (nor is it really possible to do so).

Clichés have less impact

Consider the difference between including a cliché in your writing vs. expecting a cliché to feel meaningful.

For example, consider the difference between:

  • "That guy was mad as a hornet."

  • "That guy was as mad a tiger with its tail in a trap."

Purely in terms of what's being described, I'd say a hornet is at least as vivid as the tiger. Probably even better, because honestly, an angry hornet is a simple and very vivid image.

But since the cliché is so familiar, the reader won't be imagining a hornet; won't be receiving any vivid imagery. He'll know that "mad as a hornet" just translates as "really mad."

This is not necessarily a problem. Maybe "really mad" is all you're trying to say. Maybe you're not aiming for vivid imagery here.

But, if you were relying on "mad as a hornet" as being a more interesting, way to say "really mad," as being more descriptive and vivid and impactful -- it isn't going to do that job. Don't expect it to.

Clichés often come at the expense of more precise writing

Consider the difference between:

  • "Bob started cursing me out in Russian. I don't actually Russian, but it was pretty unambiguous, plus he was yelling at the top of his lungs.

  • "Bob growled and punched the wall. Once, twice, three times."

  • "Bob had been complaining to me about plot holes in the new Transformers movies for the last three hours, without as much as a bathroom break."

  • "Bob was mad as a hornet."

"Bob was mad as a hornet" might legitimately describe each of these, but that would lost a ton of information. Being "mad," and even "mad as a hornet," is a generic, abstract thing -- any cliché is; anything too specific can't become that hyper-popular, always-handy go-to phrase.

So a major problem is using a cliché instead of actually portraying the important part of the scene.

Again: not always a problem. "Bob was mad as a hornet about the new Transformers movie, complaining about it for hours and hours" doesn't suffer from this problem (although: once you've explained how Bob is mad, is the "mad as a hornet" really still necessary?). And you don't want to portray every single thing in great detail; sometimes clichés are excellent precisely because you don't want them to occupy to much space or attention.

But a big reason to worry about overuse of clichés, is that if you're using them a lot, it's probably as a cover for not coming up with something more precise, something specific to this particular story. If you keep using clichés for emphasis and/or shorthand, over and over, ask yourself why you need to, and if that kind of emphasis and shorthand is really one you want so frequently.


The above points are as true for plot and character as they are for phrasing.

Avoiding clichés doesn't mean you can't have a swashbuckling rogue, or a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl plot, etc. etc. What it does mean is that you can't just rely on "OMG will he get the girl?" to capture and sustain the reader's interest; or hope that readers will fall in love with your character if they're a cookie-cutter clone of a dozen others.

Maybe what happens to the rogue is what's interesting in this story. Maybe the relationship in this boy-meets-girl story is what makes it powerful. Maybe the dialogue is fantastic and memorable, even if the plot has been done a million times before. All fine.

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    I think the other point to consider is that, as with many such writing guidelines, the reason there is a guideline saying "don't do this" is because many new writers do it to excess -- it's a caution against a technique that is easy to overuse, not a real suggestion that it should never be done. – Jules Mar 30 '18 at 16:29
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Cliches are good.

Basically a cliche is a way to convey lots of context and subtext to the audience without having to actually do the work. This means that you can use your time to do the things that make your story better and more special instead.

The problem is that writers, being human, tend to do the even easier solution of using the cliches instead of the things that would make the story special and better. This results in the story and writing themselves being "cliched", derivative, flat, unoriginal etc.

So, despite cliches being good it is usually better advice to tell people not to use them. That way people will not skip doing the things that should not be skipped. That they do more work than they would if they properly used cliches is generally not an issue. I mean, if somebody actually listens to your opinion on whether to use cliches or not, they probably need the exercise and will benefit from having done that extra work.

Besides cliches are mainly timesavers. Sometimes you can subvert them in really cool and interesting ways and in some genres knowing and referencing the common cliches is almost essential. But in general not using cliches will not hurt and telling people to avoid them is always safe.

Considering that the risk of using cliches are fairly bad it is clear why telling people to avoid them is much better and wiser advice to give. Especially for new writers who might not just end with a bad story or two but actually learn bad habits of slacking in their writing and story telling that will be a pain to unlearn.

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