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Prose Cliches And Originality When Writing Novels, by Greg Barron

Her eyes were like sapphires…

I think we can all recognise clichés in other people’s writing. Sometimes it’s harder to see them in our own.  I write hundreds in my first drafts, and then I delete or change as many as I can. That’s the best thing about writing. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around.

Of course, some clichés will always slip through and reach the final draft. Hopefully they’ll be the less noticeable, more forgivable ones. After a lot of conscious effort your brain automatically learns to avoid them. It stops you writing “it was a dark and stormy night,” and substitutes something specific like, “thunderheads boiled up from the south, past the towering apartments along the beach…”

The most immediate way to stop writing lots of clichés is to quit writing so fast! Writing one and half thousand words in an hour is really just putting a stream of consciousness onto the page. Your brain is assembling images into words as fast as it can. The quickest way it can do this is to use clichés. They are a kind of image shorthand.

Slow down. Refuse to let your mind choose the easiest pathway. Give yourself time to find an original and creative way to say what you want to say. Give yourself time to recall detail from your research, experiences and imagination. Sometimes that super-fast writing is great for an action sequence or riffing on a theme, where you just see what comes out and worry about editing later, but if you do it all the time the editing can be beyond you, and you do want to be editing something that’s at least half decent or it’s easy to feel despondent.

Look at the world through your own eyes then describe what you see, in your own words. If you want to write that a character’s brown hair frames her happy and honest face, but you know it’s a cliché, how do you tell the reader she’s a brunette? Use another specific detail to bring that information in. Use a faded red hair band to tie it back. Contrast it with the cream-coloured beret that she bought in Paris (or Dubbo). If you want to tell the reader that she smiles a lot, maybe stray strands of hair drift into her mouth when she smiles and she’s constantly wiping them away. Maybe there’s an endearing gap in her teeth when she grins. These are just examples off the top of my head. You’ll think of better ones when you have a specific character in mind.

Clichés in dialogue are generally more forgivable, because real people use them a lot. They can be closely related to dialect, often forming part of the vernacular of a particular environment: “Stone the crows, Mary, get off your high horse.” A phrase like, “We’ll head them off at the pass,” can also be used, out of context, as irony, or purely to provide colour to a character.

A particularly virulent form of cliché are those glib word pairings that always go together. Meticulous research; blissfully unaware; shady tree; silky smooth; abject apology; wailing sirens; furrowed brow; stubborn fool; breakneck speed; pouring rain. Don’t put them on the page in the first place, if possible, but we all do, so edit them out.

It’s also true that, at times, a writer can climb out on a very shaky branch in the process of trying to avoid a cliché – and some awful constructions can result. Occasionally your character might just have to break down in tears or run as fast as they can. People do those things, after all. The secret is to minimise them. At least be aware of them and get rid of all the ones you can easily live without.


Greg Barron’s author website:

Greg Barron’s Bio Page

Rotten Gods     Wings of FearHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodStillwater CreekThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lia #

    Excellent post. I always wondered why the cliches came first, and never clicked that speed was the culprit. That was a lightbulb moment – thank you!

    April 5, 2013
    • Thanks Lia,
      I worked the speed one out a while ago, and I also limit my daily output to about 2000 words because I find that beyond that my brain goes into ‘easy mode.’ That might not apply to everyone, of course. Cheers and good luck!

      April 5, 2013
  2. Found the post very informative and a great reminder to writers as sometimes it is easy to let cliches slip through even the editing part of process. I really like your description of the brains ‘easy mode’. Cheers Greg.

    July 26, 2013

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