Devious Clichés Masquerading as Fine Writing in Your Stories

by | Writing | 16 comments

One of the standard Words of Advice that writers—new and old—get, is to avoid clichés. The advice itself is rather a cliché but, like all clichés, it is based on truth, and it would be wrong to reflexively ignore it.— Madeleine Robbins



I like today’s quote. So, what do writing professionals say about clichés?


  • Are overused words or phrases
  • Lack originality and freshness
  • Express truths in phrases now too commonplace
  • Become meaningless
  • by skeeze

    by tpsdave

    Are too general or vague, e.g. “His idea knocked it out of the park.” What did his idea affect? What were the actual benefits?
  • Used as padding for word count
  • Can be something other than trite words and phrases:
    • Ordinary, unimaginative, predictable, overused
      • characters
      • situations
      • plots
    • Overdone devices, such as:
      • Mirrors for describing characters
      • Car chases for action
      • Dreams to relay information or emotions
      • Too familiar melodrama for melodrama’s sake, e.g. Hero fails to compliment her dress. So she throws herself across her bed, beats her fists against the mattress, and drenches the pillow with her tears.
      • Countdown clocks to increase tension
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at


The harm clichés do to your story:



  • Remove the specificity that draws the reader to
    • picture an authentic action
    • understand what the author genuinely wants to say.
  • Add only what anyone, including the reader, could’ve written.
  • Lessen credibility of the author, especially with each subsequent cliché.

Examples of Clichés:


  • by Joergelman

    by Joergelman

    • All’s fair in love and war.
    • His bark is worse than his bite.
    • She can’t cut the mustard.
    • He’s like a kid in a candy store.
    • She was on cloud nine.
    • Opportunity doesn’t knock twice.
    • A stitch in time saves nine.
    • Don’t flog a dead horse
  • “Less Obvious”
    • She was a kind soul
    • Bide your time
    • Blow off steam
    • Case of mistaken identity
    • Burning question
    • Cold shoulder
    • Crystal clear
    • Caught in the crossfire
    • Keep an eye on
    • Know the ropes
    • Look down your nose on
    • Make the best of it
    • Lose your temper
    • Off the top of my head
    • On a roll
    • Every fiber of my being
    • Sigh of relief
    • In his element

What we should do about clichés:


  • Allow, sparingly, in dialogue or characters’ thoughts. Characters will say and think clichés. When writing in deep point of view, the writer is always in the point-of-view characters head, so readers may expect the “less obvious” clichés. Sparingly still applies.
  • Watch for clichés sprouting when making comparisons, e.g. he was stronger than Samson; his words were Greek to me.
  • Give specific details instead of a cliché.
  • Develop characters so readers can’t identify them using a cliché, e.g. bleeding heart.
  • Become familiar with this extensive list of 681 clichés.
  • Avoid laziness and write genuine, authentic, fresh phrases, plots, situations, and characters.
  • Rewrite clichés to make them fresh.
  • Remove common melodrama, e.g. a woman throwing plates at her insensitive, dodging husband.

Why would readers spend money on what they could write themselves, i.e. clichés? Click to tweet.

What cliché turns you off in your reading experiences?

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  1. Terri Tiffany

    Love this post!! Thank you!

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Thanks, Terri, I’m glad it spoke to you. Oh, dear, is that a cliché?

  2. Evelyn Wagoner

    Great post! I especially cringe at misspoken … “for all intensive purposes.” Although I certainly can see a character saying it and annoying another character.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Evelyn, the misspoken cliché you mentioned made me laugh. Thanks.

  3. Kathryn J. Bain

    I think another cliche is the petite female cop who spews the “f” world to appear tough. Seems a lot of authors do that these days. It only tells me she knows how to cuss. Instead, have her arrest some biker dude. That’ll show how tough she is.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Kathryn, good example. I wouldn’t have thought of that one. Have her take down a criminal biker dude.

  4. marilyn leach

    Zoe, excellent reminder! I love to “re-craft” idioms or clichés. What a fun creative process, as long as they work and fit well. You can never be reminded too many times. OOps, was that a cliché?

  5. Zoe M. McCarthy

    Me too, Marilyn. I like ‘re-crafting’ clichés. But I try to use them sparingly as well.

  6. Roger E. Bruner

    One of my favorite adaptations of a cliche (I heard it once in the mid-60s and never since) is this: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it thirsty.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Roger, you made me smile. Most folks wouldn’t expect the thirsty.

  7. Cathe

    He (or she) padded across the room.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Cathe, I hadn’t recognized that as a cliche, but like “manicured lawn,” I can see it becoming common. The more I think about your example, I probably wouldn’t use padded unless my character was only wearing socks so he’d walk more like a cat. I’m glad you brought that one up to think about. I don’t think I’ve used it, and will think twice (cliché) before ever using it.

      • Cathe Swanson

        I’m reading it in contemporary novels – it’s a “new cliche.”

        • Zoe M. McCarthy

          I know I’ll start noticing it now. Thanks Cathe.

  8. Jane Foard Thompson

    Great post, Zoe! I think each genre temps writers with their specific cliches. To me, the Christian romance genre is probably the hardest to avoid them, especially cliched actions.

    I’ve been listening to dialogue around me and realized we constantly speak in cliches, so editing them from our written words is an arduous task!

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Jane, are you referring to pounding hearts? I have to admit I’ll have at least one of those in my romances. I’m always on the lookout for what others write on what happens in hearts. :0)

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