Don't Use Cliches! Except this one other time.

And then he just looked at me and said, “Using clichés is fun. I’ll show you how.”

Clichés are useful. They tell you immediately what’s familiar to your audience. Your job then is to takes what’s familiar and innovate.

Use a paragraph or heck, an entire book to tell the reader okay, here’s something you’ve seen a million times, but never like THIS. The trick here is that you don’t literally say the cliché, just use it to help you be more aware of how your reader experiences your story.


FROM THE DAWN OF MAN

This is a great one. Use a variation of this to subvert the reader’s expectations. The reader thinks they know exactly what the setup/payoff is, but you go a different direction.

I LEARN MORE FROM THEM THAN THEY DID FROM ME

Also used to subvert reader expectations. Use this exact phrase, then list the things you learned that are the opposite of what you’d expect to learn in that situation. Great for dramatic OR comedic effect.

ALL THAT GLITTERS ISN’T GOLD

I *adore* this one as is, but it’s easy to make an entire chapter that uses this without saying it. You show the reader that yeah, there’s this thing EVERYONE wants, but here’s the hidden cost no one else knows about.

LITTLE DID THEY KNOW

Dustin Hoffman explains this perfectly in STRANGER THAN FICTION. Unless you’re writing in omniscient POV, you deliberately break the limited POV to say hey, something so important is about to happen that God came down to say LOOK!!!

SOMEONE WOKE UP ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE BED

One of my favorites. The character is in a situation that should be fine, even awesome, but for some reason, they’re upset.

LOST TRACK OF TIME

This can be a paragraph where the character gets lost in the experience, then sees whoops, it’s sunrise. A good cliché to show, don’t tell.

ONLY TIME WILL TELL

This is good if you follow it up with, “And that time is now.” Otherwise, imo this is one to avoid. It’s like a prologue that’s all setup, no story.

CLICHES THAT DESCRIBE PEOPLE

HAD NERVES OF STEEL

Show your character refusing to bend in the face of something overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be epic, just an extremely vulnerable situation for that specific character.

A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

What makes your seemingly unimportant character special? A variation on this in romance stories is “Cutting the herd.” That’s when you take someone who seems like every other asshole who broke your heart, then show what makes them different.


What you’ll see across all of these clichés is that the key to using them is another oft-repeated cliché: “Show, don’t tell.”

I’ve been telling you how to artfully use clichés as the basis for a larger scene or story, but they’re also helpful if you flat out state a cliché. Here's Robert Cargill's advice on how to make cliches work by flat out stating them.

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He and Dave Chen have terrific writing advice in general, so follow them and subscribe to their @writealongpod if you haven't already.

NOTE: If you missed it, here’s Cliche’s Part 1.


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