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Bob Nailor

The Clichés of Writing

As a writer, we are constantly assaulted with "that's a cliché" and told to remove it from our manuscript. Let me show some examples:

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet
Life is a bowl of cherries
Flown the coop
Rub salt in the wound
A roll of the dice

You get the picture. Editors read your hard-written manuscript and reject it for too many clichés within the document. So how do you fix this? Simple. Rephrase:

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
becomes …
A muffin in the mouth is worth a dozen on the shelf.

My editor nailed me on:

Red in the morning, Sailor take warning.
It was changed to:
When it flickers on a coin, A sailor’s pride can be told
But beware the open seas, If the night time sky turns gold

Yes, a tad bit wordier but it is now MY cliché — not a familiar one.

But, there is more to cliché writing. Think about it — locations, situations, characters and more.

I'm going to use the fantasy genre for my explanations.

Why do elves always have to be tall, blonde and extremely arrogant? Not only that, they are perfect marksmen with their arrows, move with agility and oh, they are so eloquent.

In the same theme, why are dwarves usually written as stubby, mean, axe wielding, grumpy personas?

Or dragons as huge behemoths with large leathery wings that by nature's standard, wouldn't allow a bird into flight if it were built the same? Why do they always live in a mountain cave and have sulfurous breath and flames?

I could continue on with a lot of questions, but in reality, what I am pointing out is a simple, yet often unseen (or unmentioned) truth. They are cliché!

Authors are continually harangued with "be creative," "don't follow the norm," and other such nonsense and then are told it doesn't fit the guidelines or what the reading populace expects! If you follow the "standard" then you are told it is just like all the rest. You change it up and it doesn't fit the guidelines. Can you win?

Experts in writing constantly tell us not to use clichés in our writing but the truth is: we consistently use clichés! In the fantasy genre, have you yet to see a village that isn't a collection of hovels? A bad ruler who hasn't gone to the dark side? Trolls who turn to stone in sunlight? A soothsayer who is always right? The good knight who literally glows with purity? Or, shall I say it? The damsel in distress who is the epitome of beauty and helplessness?

Wait! I stand corrected. Shreck sort of broke the mold on stereotypes and definitely changed the images of clichés.

Still, I stand by my views. Everything is cliché — not just a phrase! So use discretion when sprinkling verbal clichés about and remember, most of your writing is cliché, too. IF it were me looking for the secreted-away princess, I'd start checking out the local woodsmen's cottages or for the long lost prince among the stable-boys and blacksmiths. Yes, we're talking cliché from the get-go!

I could also show these in other genres, such as romance, thriller, horror, detective and the list goes on, but I won't. If you write in the genre, you know what I'm saying.

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Steve Soderquist
Good stuff, Bob!
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Elyse Salpeter
I kind of like cliches because I immediately understand what's happening. You're right, when I think of elves I think of Lord of the Ring Elves... immediate view in my mind... but you're right, cliches aren't always good and I guess we need to expand outside the norm and make them our own.
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Scott Bury
I can always tell a bad fantasy novel from the crude, childish map of the made-up world at the front of the book, and the ludicrous names that are meant to sound either Celtic or Norse.
When I set out to write my first novel, The Bones of the Earth, I determined to break as many clichés of the fantasy genre as I could. So the hero is not a prince, he's a farm boy with a disability. There is a princess, but she's not especially beautiful, nor regal - actually, she's just the daughter of a lowly village chief - and she's not noble. The sage is not that wise and often has no answer. And I did not invent another world that's really just a facsimile of ancient Britain or Scandinavia. I set the story in the very real, historical, sixth-century Eastern Europe.
At the same time, I tried to evoke as many ancient myths as I could, especially those not from Britain or Northern Europe.
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Onisha Ellis
Here are my two outlawed terms when I edit: sparkling blue eyes and steaming hot coffee. Why do only blue eyes sparkle and coffee hasn't steamed since we replaced stove top percolators with drip machines and McDonalds was sued.
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Charles Dougherty
Remeber that clichés exist because they embody fundamental truths.
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Tamie Dearen
I knew there was a reason I liked Shrek so much! LOL
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Lisa Jey Davis
I use cliche's because I write non-fiction and they're important for maintaining my voice. And besides... If it isn't broke it doesn't need fixing... Why recreate another cliche' if everyone will get the point with the original? I am afraid I disagree with you on this one, at least in terms of non-fiction and depending, of course, on how they're used. But great post as usual Bob!
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Rebekah Lyn
I think cliches show up so much because we hear them every day. I think I'm going to try to create original cliches for the next week to see if I can break the habit. Thanks for the post, Bob.
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James Prescott
I think if we spin cliches in a new way - like Shrek did, and top writers and speakers I know do, that's OK. And not using them every second sentence helps too! Great post.
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