Monday, March 30, 2015

Cliches, and How to Fix Them

So we all write cliches; more specifically, we use cliched phrases. All of us. Sometimes, it just happens; I admit that I tend to rely on them during first drafts, since it allows me to focus more on the story that I'm slowly piecing together, rather than the language (which is what I focus on during later drafts).

So what are cliched phrases? They're tired phrases. They're the word combinations that have been used so often that they stop being sharp and witty and they eventually become contrived and simple.

What do you do when you find cliches in your writing? Simply rewrite them to make them different. Now, it's not as easy as it sounds, but it's by no means impossible. When you find them, just close your eyes and lean back and think about the phrase you used, and think about it in the context of your work. It's a brainstorming game of association.

Here are some examples of cliche phrases that my thesis adviser has found in my writing so far (cliches appear in italics):

  • "Palace Square never failed to make her head spin."
  • "Rousseau stopped short when she turned onto the bridge that led to the Woods."
  • "Time was ticking away while she stood there on the bridge."
  • "She pressed the heel of her palm to her socket and her skin slipped against the tears that poured down her face."
  • "There wasn't a soul in [CITY] who hadn't heard the rumors."
  • "He closed and locked the gate, and though he'd already turned around before she started on her way home, she felt his eyes on her until she reached the end of the street."

I mean, some of them aren't the worst things in the world, right? Yet if you get enough of these in your writing, it'll bog it down. Here's a look at the subsequent draft of these phrases (new phrases appear in italics):

  • "Palace Square was a plethora of beautiful things."
  • "Rousseau hesitated when she turned onto the bridge that led to the Woods."
  • "The seconds sludged by while she stood there on the bridge."
  • "She pressed the heel of her palm to her face and her skin slipped against the watery tears that dripped from her scalding eye socket."
  • "Everyone in Palace Square had heard the rumors about the man who lived inside, and most people in the Village and the Woods, too, but the story was always a little different."
  • "He closed and locked the gate, and before she even started on her way home he'd turned around and disappeared inside the tangles of his garden."

Okay, so some of those aren't completely better (none of these are final), but ya'll can see the way I changed the phrases, I hope? Sometimes I simply used a synonym (exchanging "hesitated" for "stopped short"), which doesn't always yield the best results, but it works. In the last example, I was lucky: the entire story had changed by the time I made it back to that phrase, so it was easier to change (which is why I mentioned that it's important to think about the cliches in the context of your work).

It helps to think in the vernacular of your story, and to really get into the head of your character. What kinds of phrases do they use that are unique to them? What about vocabulary? What are their favorite things, or their least favorite, and can those be used to describe things they they like/dislike?

To put it simply, cliches kind of suck. They bore the reader, and they're a challenge to change because we're so used to using them, intentionally or not. The challenge (and we all love challenges, right?) is in brainstorming those new ideas: twist a tired phrase and create something new for your readers to enjoy.

What are some common cliches that you see often? What about in your own writing? How do you go about finding them, and how do you fix them?

Tweet It:

Twist a tired phrase and create something new. Blogger @Rae_Slater talks cliche phrases, and how to fix them (Click to Tweet)

Trying to re-word a cliched phrase? Think about your brainstorming as a game of association (Click to Tweet)

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