Beating a Dead Cliche

Everyone tells you to eliminate cliches from your writing because editors hate them, but I still see cliches all the time in published books. This bothers me. Maybe a cliche or familiar phrasing is all right in some cases, but I’m getting tired of seeing them, especially these:

1. “starving children in Africa” – In many a YA book, the teen’s mother will tell her son or daughter to eat everything on his/her plate because there are starving children in Africa. I know real parents tell their kids this all the time, but since we hear it so much in real life, why should we have to hear it in fiction, too?

2. The Mirror Cliche – I’ve heard this piece of advice many times: Do not have your character describe him/herself by looking in a mirror. (As I dashed out of the house, I stopped by the hall mirror and smoothed my long, blond hair from my forehead. I smiled, which made my blue eyes light up…) I still see this in books all the time.

3. “if looks could kill” – I’ve seen this in quite a few YA books published in the last five years. I wish editors would eliminate it. “If looks could kill, her glare would have made me burst into flames” or something like that. I’m just sick of seeing it. If cliches could kill… this one would finish me off.

4. “toot your own horn” – Many nonfiction books talk about how detrimental it is to constantly toot your own horn. I see this one in fiction, too, which somehow makes it worse.

5. The Pony Every Child Supposedly Wants – Lots of YA and middle-grade novels have the protagonist talking about how they wanted their parents to buy them a pony or how every little girl wants a pony. “If you do well on your math test, I’ll get you that pony you’ve been wanting.” Not every child wants a pony. I think the phrase was supposed to be funny at some point, but now it’s just old.

Any cliches that really annoy you? Let me know. ๐Ÿ™‚

11 thoughts on “Beating a Dead Cliche

  1. ๐Ÿ˜€ I enojoyed this rant. I always notice cliches – one cliche that always happens is when someone has a problem, and the unhelpful response is ” All this will make you a stronger person “, or, “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”

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  2. Maggie,
    While I agree that cliches can be old and repetetive, and try to avoid them in my own speech, I do occasionally allow my characters to use them. Most of my characters aren’t perfect, and some are downright rediculous.
    Properly handled, a cliche-wielding character can be used to good effect.
    On the other hand, the narrator should never fall into that kind of rut–unless he or she is a character telling the story. Omnicient narrators should be above it all.

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    1. I totally agree with you. I feel like in a character’s dialogue, cliches and anything else are fine. They can be overused, of course, but for the most part, it helps to bring out a quirk in that character’s personality. Sometimes, though, when too many types of characters (like parent characters in YA novels) use the same cliches, it feels like they’re just saying the “stock” things that they’re “supposed” to say.

      Basically, if you’re going to use a cliche, you had better have a darn good use for it! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  3. In my case, I don’t believe I’ve done the Mirror Cliche outright. Though now that I think back, there has been at least 3 occurrences of characters looking at themselves in mirrors/reflective surfaces in my 3 book series. But that isn’t how they are technically described to the reader in the books. In one case, the main character looks in the mirror and sees how haggard she looks after not sleeping for so many days. Then in another book, a character looks into a reflective glass wall and thinks about the scars that should have disfigured his face, but aren’t there, etc. You get the idea.

    And the If Looks Could Kill, I usually just use the latter part of the example you used. (I think). I’ve said things like: So and so stared at her with such intensity that it almost burned holes right through her. (Not that exactly, but you get the idea.)

    I don’t really notice these types of things much. Though I am very forgetful, so even if something like that is in a lot of the books I read, I’d probably just forget all about it!

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    1. I’m just saying that the Mirror Cliche shouldn’t be used to introduce/describe a character for the first time. If the mirror/reflective surface is used to describe a character in a unique way, then it breaks the cliche and it’s fine. ๐Ÿ™‚

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      1. Hi, again. I agree fully with the mirror cliche being not only overused, but truly out of place.

        I tend to use little to no description of my characters. I might describe a jacket or a pair of shoes–if either is important to the story–but I like to leave my characters by and large undescribed.

        I do this so my reader can see him- or herself in the role, so they can better identify with the lead characters.

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        1. That is a good technique. I try to describe just the physical aspects of the character that make them stand out, not ordinary stuff like eye color/hair color.

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  4. If a cliche gets my point across more easily that “beating around the bush,” especially if it “kills two birds with one stone,” then I “go with the flow.”

    Thanks, Maggie. Fun post and great comment thread.

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