Avoiding and Retooling Clichés

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I heard a line of dialogue in Hawaii Five O this past Friday (One of my favs.) that made me sit up and take notice. “I know it like I know the name on my driver’s license.” Why, you ask, was it so significant?

It was creative. No cliché here. You know the cliché I’m talking about. “I know it like I know my own name.” This old tired line was transformed into something cool, memorable, noteworthy. At least for me it was. I turned to my hubby remarking that was a great line. Other family members would rather I kept my thoughts to myself. But I can’t help it. I tend to analyze not just watch a TV show or movie. This time I found a gem of a line. It inspired me.

Don’t show your amateur hand

They say the sign of an amateur writer is cliché lines. Not sure who they are, but it’s mention many times in writing books, classes and workshops “Avoid Cliché.”

It’s not easy. A cliché often says so much. We can understand with one line what otherwise would take paragraphs to explain. But it can become uninteresting and lack creativity for readers if our story is peppered with a lot of clichés.

Old Idioms aren’t always clear

My co-worker told me about her son’s coach who often used old idioms. Her son came home from practice one day and asked his mother what does “You are slower than molasses in winter” mean. I would guess most people under the age of 40 have no idea what that cliché means. When molasses was used more consistently as sweetener in days gone by, they knew it thicken in cold weather. Unless you know are familiar with molasses it makes no sense. So making sure your cliché is understandable is important too.

The cliché “It’s as plain as the nose on your face,” we know, refers to the obvious. Today we might hear the phrase. “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

“The buck stops here” says I take responsibility. More recent “Put on our big boy pants.” or “Big girl pants.” We strive to be PC.

Some clichés like the molasses reference are dated. “Easy as pie.” What does that mean? It should really be easy as eating pie. Simple and pleasurable. Same as “Piece of Cake.”

Clichés can show time periods

Old clichés fit well in historical fiction if they are true to the time period.

“Say hello to my little friend.” Probably wouldn’t come out of the mouth of a bandit from 1874. But the idiom “When Pigs Fly” has been around since the 1600s. It refers to the impossible.

A sprinkle of cliché to speak to time and place usually gets (excuse the cliché ) under the radar of the cliché police.

Practice avoiding clichés

An exercise in many writing courses is to take an overused line and give it a fresh spin. Such as the line “I know it as well as I know my own name.” How else can a writer express confidence in a characters declaration of truth? How about “I know it like I know when Monday Night Football comes on.” Okay maybe you can come up with a better one.

One of the best reasons to avoid clichés is to push yourself to exercise creativity. For example a big clumsy guy at a gala might be described as “A Bull in a China Shop.” But isn’t it more interesting to say he was like “A singing mule at a piano recital.”

Avoiding cliché stretches our writing muscles. You might even create a new cliché. Remember “Life is just a box of chocolate.”

Let’s have a little fun. Here are some clichés. See if you can come up with a new twist on them.

Stick to my guns

It’s not my cup of tea.

Can’t see the forest for the tree.

It’s like pulling teeth.

Throwing out the baby with the bath water.

If you’re comfortable doing so I’d love to see your creativity in the comments.


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