Clichés can be tricky: they seem to be everywhere, which means they must be a good thing, right?
Wrong. (Well, at least if you’re aiming for something even slightly original.)
It’s true that at some point in time, every cliché was once new and original—and in fact, so appealing that everyone else decided to use them, too.
But if you want to create something worth remembering, you’re going to want to stand out. The first thing you’ll need to do is learn how to recognize and avoid clichés.
A cliché is an expression that has been overused to the point that it is no longer novel and may even be used ironically.
The term can also refer to an action that has become predictable because it has been performed many times in the past. For example, the plot of a cheesy romantic comedy might be described as cliché because its outcome is easy to predict.
Clichés tend to make writing weaker because they reflect a lack of original thought, and should therefore be avoided. Read on for examples of clichés and tips for how you can avoid them in your writing.
Examples of Clichés
Behind any cliché is an expression that was once new and fresh, but thanks to its popularity, it has become overused.
Below are several examples of cliché expressions that you’re probably heard at some point. You’ll notice that it’s common to find hyperboles, idioms, similes, or other figures of speech embedded in clichés.
- When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
- The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
- And they all lived happily ever after.
- There are plenty of fish in the sea.
- What goes around comes around.
- Every cloud has a silver lining.
- The writing’s on the wall.
- All that glitters isn’t gold.
- Read between the lines.
- All is well that ends well.
- All is fair in love and war.
- Better safe than sorry.
- Time heals all wounds.
- Play your cards right.
- Ignorance is bliss.
- Opposites attract.
- Only time will tell.
Clichés to Describe People
Below are just a few clichés that are frequently used to describe people and characters.
To make your writing more original, avoid these clichés and try to come up with your own unique descriptions for an unforgettable protagonist.
- As fit as a fiddle
- As brave as a lion
- Busy as a bee
- A bad seed
- As clever as a fox
- As happy as a clam
- Dumb as a doorknob
- A diamond in the rough
Clichés in Literature: Examples from Shakespeare
Some clichés can be found in literature, though in the case of Shakespeare, these phrases were original when the poet first put them on paper.
- “All that glitters is not gold.” —The Merchant of Venice
- “Jealousy is the green-eyed monster.” —Othello
- “…melted into thin air.” —The Tempest
While it’s an honor for your original words to become a cliché, you’ll be considered quite unoriginal if you use too many clichés in your writing.
How to Avoid Clichés in Your Writing
Use the tips below to avoid clichés and make your own writing more original.
If it seems like something that would happen to Jennifer Aniston’s character in a movie, then it might be a cliché.
Do your best to avoid predictable plot lines and stereotypical characters, like Mary Sues and Gary Stus.
How can you do that? By telling your own story, one that only you can tell, instead of one that’s been recycled over and over again.
The film Isn’t It Romantic pokes fun at the stereotypes that often characterize romantic comedies by trapping the main character in her own personal rom-com film.
However, Isn’t It Romantic actually becomes a romantic comedy itself, as the protagonist learns to accept herself and realizes love has been right next to her all along in the form of her best work friend. (I just choked on the number of clichés that were packed into that sentence alone.)
Don’t Just Do What’s Convenient
Clichés are convenient, which is perhaps by so many writers use them (often without even realizing it).
If you’re having a creatively-off day, you might be particularly susceptible to a few clichés. In that case, it’s probably better to just put the pen down for a while. If you’re just writing on autopilot, you risk slapping a new name or face on the same scenario you watched play out last night on Lifetime.
In order to ensure your story is original and cliché-free, you’ll want to ask yourself: What would I or my readers expect to happen next?
Take whatever you would expect to be the next line or move from your character and do exactly the OPPOSITE. (Or at least, don’t do that.)
Avoid Melodrama and Sensationalism
When you’re dealing with dramatic or sensational topics (like organized crime, casino heists, natural disasters, war, etc.), it’s extremely likely that you’re going to run up against (at least) a few clichés.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t write a story set in the world of organized crime; it just means you’ll have to take care that your manuscript doesn’t end up looking like a cheap imitation of Goodfellas (especially since your odds of creating something better than a Scorsese masterpiece are decisively slim—sorry!)
Again, you can avoid this by telling your own story, the one that’s in your head, and not one that has been recycled thousands of times. If you really love crime thrillers, for example, show your respect for the genre by offering up something fresh and not just using the same stereotypes.
Be Specific in Your Descriptions
When describing characters, places, or situations, be as specific as you can. Try to come up with your own creative descriptions; for example, saying your leading lady is “as lovely as a rose” is such a tired cliché, and really doesn’t tell us anything about how she looks.
Use your imagination to craft your own figurative language and imagery. If you try comparing your subject to something unexpected, the experience will be much more rewarding for your readers.
Aim for Originality
Clichés became clichés because at some point, everyone loved them. But once they cross that line into the unoriginal, clichés can signify an amateur—or even weak—writer.
By learning to recognize clichés, you’ll be better able to keep them out of your work and write the stuff that newbies will one day try to imitate.
What are some of your least favorite clichés in film or literature? Share your thoughts in the comments below!