Clichés…The Poisoned Apple of Description

It’s been awhile since my last cliché post, so I thought I’d look at the temptation aspect of clichés, and why writers are drawn to using them when faced with tough description choices.

The way I see it, there are four main reasons to reach for the Poisoned Apple and chow down on it:

1) Clichéd expressions and descriptions convey an immediate, recognizable picture to the reader. Why bother to have a paragraph of description when ‘a dark and stormy night’ will do?

At first glance, this could seem like good advice. After all, aren’t we always told to streamline our writing in order to keep the reader interested and the pace moving forward? The thing to remember here is why people read in the first place. They aren’t looking for a rehashing of the mundane, to experience the same-old, same old. They read to be transported into something new, to partake in a unique and gratifying experience.

If we fill their senses with cliché after cliché to get a point across or describe a scene, then we fail as writers. This is why the voice of a story is so important–it conveys a sense of authenticity to our writing. If our prose is unique and true, then we can show a familiar setting, circumstance or event to a reader in a way that remains fresh and new.

2) Using a hackneyed expression is way easier than trying to come up with something new. Besides, all the good descriptions have already been written, so why even try to come up with something fresh?

The problem with hackneyed expressions is that we’ve heard them all before. They become lifeless and do nothing to evoke the reader’s senses, so using them to describe is counter-productive. Worse, some are so overused that seeing them in written form will pull the reader right out of the story AND make them want to scratch their own eyes out.

As writers we need to describe in a way that offers a fresh image to the reader. The moment they read the first word, an author has made a promise: to offer them a new experience. Keeping our expressions and descriptions our own is how we make good on that promise. It can be difficult at times to be original, but never is it impossible.

3) Based on unique experiences, everyone has a different way of seeing something. If I describe something specifically, it will alienate my readers because they will not see it the same way. Better to stick with language and descriptions that are easily recognizable.

There are times where clichés can be used (and I’ll get into that in another post). However, we should never let the fear of alienating the reader through our own brand of showing get in the way of writing. Everyone has different tastes and different ways of seeing things, true, but so do we. Readers choose our books because they want to experience our viewpoint–that’s our job, to give them a glimpse of what we see.

This is also why we take care to not describe everything in exhaustive detail…the reader’s own imagination will fill in the blanks and becomes part of the experience. It makes them feel involved. Often a few fingernail sensory details are all the reader needs.

4) Some concepts are abstract and too hard to show, like emotions. Better to use a cliché or two than bog down the book with inadequate misfires as we try to convey exactly how a character is feeling. Clichés are familiar and can be comforting.

This is true…if you’re writing text for a greeting card company. Rarely are there circumstances where some earnest thought won’t garner the right words to get across a particular emotion or circumstance. (I hope that we’ve proven that with our Emotion Thesaurus!) Coming up with fresh descriptive language, metaphors and similes can be a challenge, but succeeding is the reward of writing. Never shortchange the reader or yourself by stopping once you hit an easy answer to a descriptive woe.

Can you think of other reasons why writers are tempted to use clichés when they know they shouldn’t? What’s your biggest struggle as far as keeping away from the cliché?


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
This entry was posted in Cliches, Description, Editing Tips, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Clichés…The Poisoned Apple of Description

  1. Angela says:

    Yeah, dialogue is one place where using a cliche is totally fine. I’ll be doing a post on this in the coming weeks.

  2. Donna says:

    I’ve tended to work my cliche issues out on private so no one else but me knows they exist. Ha! But in actual writing and submitting form, I think the use of cliches was stomped out of me before I could let professional eyes see it. I’m uber aware of them when I write (except for shoulder shrugging, must stab).

    I tend to save that stuff for the fanfiction I write. That’s not to say it’s laden, I just don’t care as much. Usually though, with the fanfic, I take a cliche in the fanfom and stab it to death. So I do use them but I put them in a blender.

    It really irked me when I had a reviewer I knew review my story and had nothing bad to say except that I used a “chiched” line of dialogue, “If he can’t finish the job, I will.” Just to put it in context, for the character saying it, its extraordinarily relevant to the plot and it was in a *dream*. Nothing else she had bad to say about the whole of the 40,000 words except that one line. It was “cliche.” Not that I think my work is perfect by any means but when it’s obvious someone is searching the haystack for the needle to poke me with, I’m gonna get a little cranky.

  3. Marian says:

    Naturally, a post like this makes me think, “Hmm, how can I start a story with a cliche and still produce something interesting?”

    I think using the cliche as part of the voice might work. Something like this…

    “It was a dark and stormy night. But what night would be a good one for your fiancee to tell you she’s been seeing another man? And to hell with the storm. Even if it was raining bits of broken glass, I was going over to Melissa’s place to clean out my things before she moved the new lover in.”

  4. zoe says:

    I think that in dialouge cliches are OK if it is reasonable that the character would use them (a character from a play I studied in school spoke entirely in cliches and it really worked for the character). This is distinct from cliched dialougue. I have been watching Star Wars with my younger brother, and the oft uttered line: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” makes me cringe!

  5. Angela says:

    Great comments, Guys!

    PJ, that’s perfect advice. We usually think of the cliche first–so we should nudge the descriptive tidbit a bit to find the fresh idea.


    Gutsywriter–wow, three languages! I know about 1 & a half (I took French in school but if I had to talk to someone in French, their ears would explode at my broken French. I think someone who doesn’t quite get the cliches right would make an interesting character, BTW!

    Slhastings–definitely we tend to plunge after the cliche train when we’re green. Poor Becca, she had to read my first fantasy YA novel. Uh, nuff said…

    Becca, you don’t tell anyone what I wrote, and I”l do the same for you–deal? (Like your writing was so terrible anyway–total empty threat here!)

    Troy, sounds like you have a good handle on the cliche twist. I like how you made the artist part of the scene.

    Good conversation, people! I think we’re all on the same cliche page, lol.

  6. A cool trick is to come up with an original way to use a cliche. I once described a scene as a Norman Rockwell painting that came to life. After I cringed, I rewrote it thus;

    “The lady on the park bench is drawing this scene as she does every day that the weather allows, and offers her finished works to the tourists for a modest price. She could be the reincarnation of Norman Rockwell, and her drawings would be the proof of that.”

    Okay, I know it won’t win me a Pulitzer, but it gets the same point across and introduces a new element to the scene as well. By having her sitting on the bench to draw the scene, I make her a part of it. At once, the reader can picture the scene as both still – as in the drawings – and alive with the activity of her drawing and the tourists buying her works.

    I don’t know, maybe I got away with it.

  7. Becca says:

    I agree that cliches are just easier than having to think up something new. When I first started, I thought cliches would be a good thing, because they’re familiar. Apparently, I forgot how annoying it is to be around someone who’s constantly throwing them around :).

  8. slhastings says:

    I think it’s either one of two things –

    a) laziness

    b) a newbie mistake

    I admit it. The first draft of my MS was riddled with cliches. And I also thought it was ready to go out the door before it was ready…

    Superagent served me my $%@ on a platter. He liked the story enough to give me two pages of editorial notes, mostly encouraging, some on plot points, and some on cliched material. I was lucky. (Also, I’d only sent out one query at the time. Phew).

    I have fun coming up with new and interesting ways of describing things now. This not only goes for emotions and descriptions, but also cliched plot points.

    (i.e) a character that has a vision/dream to get them “somewhere.” unless your book is about a character that has “visions/dreams” of the future…it’s a cop out.

  9. GutsyWriter says:

    Having been raised to speak 3 different languages from childhood, I don’t know as many cliches as the average American, or sometimes I think I know the cliche, but my husband corrects my screwed up cliche.
    Anyway, I heard you can use them in dialogue.
    Thanks for always keeping us informed. I have your emotional thesaurus open while I’m rewriting.

  10. Bish Denham says:

    Cliches are as common as fleas on a dog, so it behooves us not to sweep them under the rug. Better to use flea soap and wash them out of our hair. :O

  11. PJ Hoover says:

    Cliches are so much easier than stopping to think 🙂 That’s why.

    Nice post! I try to force the first thing that pops in my mind away and use the second or third.

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