Clichés become overused because they were originally effective ways of phrasing things. These common sayings have a wide variety of origins, many of them lost or forgotten.
Shakespeare coined (or popularized) many familiar phrases, such as “All that glitters is not gold” from The Merchant of Venice, “Forever and a day” from As You Like It, and “Eaten me out of house and home” from Henry IV Part II.
Some familiar English phrases come from the Bible, such as “bite the dust” from Psalm 72:9, “by the skin of your teeth” from Job 19:20, and “go the extra mile” from Matthew 5:41.
Other clichés are not necessarily famous sayings with documented origins, but are common ways of describing things that writers use over and over again, sometimes without even realizing it. For example, “the sun shone brightly,” “her eyes were deep pools he could drown in,” “a cold shiver ran up her spine,” or “he sweat buckets” are descriptions we’ve all read before.
Though Terry Pratchett does say, “The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication,” that doesn’t mean you can’t fill your toolbox with other gadgets. You will certainly find it impossible to avoid clichés completely because of the way our language works. However, if you rely too much on commonly used phrases, you are not providing anything new or stretching yourself to develop your author’s voice. Plus, by limiting yourself in this way and using generic wording, you avoid providing specific details about your story and your narrator, and risk boring your readers. Spicing up your prose with unique phrasing is an important step to bringing your story alive.
1. Use fresh metaphors to reveal something about a scene or character.
Metaphors are useful if they clarify or emphasize something. Use them to make a new experience feel familiar or to make a familiar experience feel new. Try rewriting a clichéd metaphor in your own words and read it back to yourself to see if it creates a deeper impact than the original. Connecting the metaphor to the specifics of your story, setting, or character will turn generic prose into stunning narrative.
For Example, in Samantha Shannon’s fantasy epic novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree, the author turns a familiar phrase—“Her heart was pounding”—into something new:
“Her heart was a fistful of thunder.”
Fear is not an emotion you want your reader to associate with anything boring. You don’t want the reader to skip over this part or to think, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” By comparing the character’s heart to thunder, Shannon deftly gets across the feeling of a rapid pulse without using a tired phrase.
This scene also takes place outside, near the ocean, at night. Though it is not raining or storming here, the use of the word thunder contributes to a weathered, sea-spray-in-your-face setting. It also points towards an empowered female character. This character is not just “afraid” or dealing with a “pounding heart,” she is facing thunder. She is thunder. It’s a very apt description for this character, who is training to be a dragon rider and would give up anything to make it happen.
2. Use similes to convey the narrator’s tone.
Similes should be written to emphasize the narrating character’s voice and use language that they would use. For example, the sentence, “Stepping outside, the heat felt like a nuclear explosion” wouldn’t make sense in a high fantasy novel. In Priory, Shannon writes this instead:
“Going outside was like stepping into a kiln. The heat varnished her skin and made her hair feel thicker.”
A kiln, which is a type of oven used to fire clay, is something familiar to a medieval society and thus makes an appropriate simile. The description of the heat also connects us to the narrator’s specific experience, referring to her hair feeling thicker (any long-haired person can relate to this description).
3. Phrase descriptions in new ways to avoid clichés.
You can spice up your writing by playing with simple sentences for dramatic effect. For example, here’s a straightforward sentence: “The clouds drifted away from the moon.” Shannon phrases this description in a unique way:
“The clouds released the moonlight they had hidden.”
Bring life to your descriptions by personifying objects or settings. Shannon does this in the sentence above with the verb released, which makes it sound like the clouds were holding the moonlight captive. In another paragraph, Shannon writes:
“The Sundial Garden drank in the morning light. Its paths were honeyed by the sun, and the roses that trimmed its lawns held a soft blush. It was watched over by the statues of the five Great Queens of the House of Berethnet, which stood on a lintel above the entrance to the nearby Dearn Tower. Sabran usually liked to take walks on days like this, arm in arm with one of her ladies, but today the paths were empty. The queen would be in no mood for a stroll when a corpse had been found so close to her bed.”
Shannon doesn’t simply describe the sun shining on the Sundial Garden, she brings it alive by saying it “drank in the morning light.” Drinking is not something a setting can literally do, but it sets our imagination to work. The garden is also “watched over” by statues, which presents them as guardians even though they are inanimate objects.
Notice how Shannon does not simply describe a setting in this paragraph, but links the scene to a character, Sabran, and the events of the story. Linking story elements to your descriptions helps keep your reader invested.
4. Balance the rhythm of your sentences.
Vary sentence lengths and types to make reading a pleasurable experience. You want a healthy mix of short, long, simple, and compound sentences—even fragment and run-on are okay now and then. Sometimes we’re tempted to use the same type of sentences over and over, but that can make readers feel like they are being jostled along in a three-wheeled wagon instead of being smoothly taken down the story’s path. For example, read the paragraph that I rewrote using only simple sentences:
“The gates of the Grand Temple were open. They were flanked by two dragon statues. Forty horses trotted between them. The temple had been burned in the past. It was later rebuilt with stone. Hundreds of lanterns dripped from its eves. They looked like fishing floats.”
And here’s the original paragraph from Priory:
“The gates of the Grand Temple of the Cape were open for the first time in a decade. They were flanked by two colossal statues of dragons, mouths open in eternal roars. Forty horses trotted between them. Once made of wood, the temple had been burned to the ground during the Great Sorrow and later rebuilt with stone. Hundreds of blue-glass lanterns dripped from its eaves, exuding cold light. They looked like fishing floats.”
Ah, much better.
5. Be precise.
Avoid overusing adverbs and adjectives. For example, Shannon could have wrote, “Quietly, the red-orange dawn cracked like a speckled heron’s egg over the tall buildings of Seiiki.” But instead, she writes this:
“Dawn cracked like a heron’s egg over Seiiki.”
Those extra words in my version don’t serve much purpose. Readers know that dawn doesn’t make a sound, so “quietly” is superfluous. The “red-orange” is unnecessary because everyone has seen a sunrise and can imagine the colours as they wish. The heron’s egg being speckled or buildings being tall are also insignificant details. The sentence packs more punch with fewer adjectives and adverbs.
Also consider using specific words instead of generic ones. Why write boat when you could write brigantine? Why write woman when you could write queen? Why write flower when you could write rose?
In the earlier example, Shannon could have just said “Dawn cracked like an egg over Seiiki,” and the sentence would have worked fine. However, I appreciate that she compares the sunrise to a “heron’s egg” and not just an egg, because the specificity links the image to a body of water without having to use the word “sea” or “ocean.” Herons are likely a bird the narrator sees often, so it also makes sense for her voice.
Avoiding clichés and writing lovely prose is a matter of practicing and developing your narrator’s voice. The nice thing about writing is that you can focus on these things after the first draft is complete, during the rewriting or editing phases. That way you can focus on getting the story down first without constantly pausing to wonder if you’re using too many clichés or familiar phrases. Make deliberate choices by letting your character’s tone inform your word choice and guide your story.