Wednesday 30 September 2015


by Jeanette O'Hagan

As a child, I loved words — learning the precise names of plants, animals and people; remembering proverbs, sayings and idioms. I loved the way words rolled off my tongue; the way words belonged together – ‘chalk and cheese’, ‘treasure trove’ or ‘bright and beautiful’.  I loved that there was a word to express the smallest nuance or a phrase to say precisely what one wanted to say in a colourful and picturesque way. I especially loved that sayings often came in opposing pairs. ‘Many hands make like work.’ ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’ ‘Great minds think alike.’ 'Small minds seldom differ.’

I was shocked to learnt that much of my treasury of words and sayings are considered to be deadly traps or mortal sins for modern fiction writers. A good writer, it is said, avoids clichés like the plague.

What is a cliché?

A cliché is a word, phrase or idea that has been overused and is now trite, predictable or no longer fresh. It is something that has been repeated so often that it becomes as ineffective as baldy tyres.

Clichés in fiction

Clichés are easy to write and to understand but they are often lazy, boring or bland.

Peter Selgin states: 
We’re drawn to clichés because they’re convenient. And convenience for writers—convenient plots, convenient characters, convenient coincidences, convenient settings or situations or strings of words—almost always spells doom.

We use clichés in metaphors, phrases, dialogue, characters and plots.

Metaphors or phrases

Clichéd metaphors are phrases or images that are overused due to their original creative brilliance or aptness. (Some words are fossilised cliches e.g. 'understood'). Examples of clichés include phrases such as ‘your worst nightmare’ or ‘a rough diamond’ or ‘a heart of gold’.

Powerful prose includes original but also natural or appropriate metaphors. To compare teeth to pearls is not original. To compare pupils to curled up caterpillars as Travis Tea does may be original, but it’s also bizarre.  Metaphors need to have the right tone or give the right impression as well as being appropriate to the character and setting. Sometimes it’s hard to find the balance between originality and appropriateness.


Clichéd characters can jar or bore the reader. A common mistake is to have a ‘Mary Sue’ character — a character who is beautiful, brilliant at everything, loved by all. Other clichés might be ‘the chosen one’ (especially in fantasy), the dumb blonde or the wise fool. In trying to leave the cliché behind, we can sometimes produce a polar opposite cliché, for instance, the person whom society expected to be good is shown to be truly evil.

Story telling draws on common archetypes — heroes, villains, mentors, helpers, the love interest, the rival etc.  Yet clumsily applied, archetypes become two dimensional stereotypes.

‘The real problem with clichés is that they deprive us of genuine details, which, though less sensational, are both more convincing and more interesting.’ Peter Selgin 2012

You can add individuality, complexity and/or place the character in a different context or culture.

Plots and World Building

Christopher Booker suggests there are seven basic plots while Joseph Campbell reduces plots to one (the Hero’s Journey). Common plots may include rags to riches, overcoming the monster (within or without), the journey and return, the quest or romance.  It may include devices such as ‘happily ever after’, ‘love at first sight’, animals or kids smarter than adults (common Disney theme), initiation ceremony as threshold into adventure, killing off the parents (often in Young Adult).  

Other works can be clearly derivative — for example, the common use of elves, dwarves and orcs in fantasy fiction following Lord of the Rings; or stories about schools of wizardry (following Harry Potter). There is heated debate whether The Hunger Games is a take-off of Battle Royale or whether Paolini in Eragon borrows too heavily from Star Wars (in plot) or Tolkien and MaCaffrey in his world building

Clichéd situations can happen in real life and different plots or plot moves may move in and out of fashion. Randy Ingermanson argues that producing an emotional response is more important than avoiding all clichés. He talks about ‘design patterns’. For example, a door is a design pattern that solves a common problem (how to get into a room). Doors can come in different shapes, materials and sizes. Even a door can be one of a kind. 

While it's not easy (or even desirable) to avoid all common elements in plots, it is essential to come up with a fresh angle or recombination of elements.

When is it okay to use clichés?

  • Dialogue – people often use clichés in dialogue, though particular phrases can be overdone, for instance ‘Make my day’ or ‘Is that what I think it is?’ .
  • Comedy and parody – where a twist is added.
  • First drafts — it is probably better to use the phrases that first come to mind to keep the creative flow. They can be changed in later drafts.

When is a cliché not a cliché

Orin Hargraves argues that some frequent expressions aren’t clichés. Some are formal words or titles. Also many idioms or succinct expressions are still effective or can’t be efficiently expressed in another way. 

At different times, I've been pulled up on phrases like ‘a twinkle in her eye’, ‘time stood still’ or ‘his eyes widened’ as clichés. To some extent I struggle with this – mentioning the widening of the eye is a way of showing emotion. And while ‘twinkling eyes’ may well have been overused, it is a phrase that expresses a certain look - a sparkle that suggests benevolent teasing or humorous outlook. ‘Time stood still’ describes a phenomena (the distortion of time sense in a crisis) in a succinct and clearly understandable way.  

Even so, fiction requires a higher level of originality than other forms of communication.

How to push past clichés.

  • Subvert the cliché — eg both Shrek and Fiona subvert the traditional fairy tale ideas of heroes and hereoines.
  • Dig deeper — move beyond the first impressions.
  • Mix and match —add diverse elements to come up with something different.
  • When using a common saying or metaphor — think, what does it actually mean, state it in plain language or transpose it into your own saying or image.
  • Use imagery that is appropriate to the character, culture and setting.
  • Be inventive rather than derivative.
  • Authenticating detail — ‘By slowing down and taking the time and trouble to imbue our stories with authentic, rich, specific moments and details, we achieve real drama and avoid its floozy cousins, sentimentality and melodrama.’ Peter Selgin 2012

It is hard, perhaps impossible, to avoid clichés altogether. However, we can work at making our words, characters and plots fresh and interesting.

What clichés in metaphors, characters and plots annoy you? Have you seen clichés presented in original ways? What frequent phrases do you think are unfairly labelled as clichés?

Image: Sandid Public Domain

Jeanette O’Hagan enjoys writing fantasy fiction, poetry, blogging and editing. She is currently writing her Akrad’s Legacy Series – a Young Adult secondary world fantasy fiction with adventure, courtly intrigue and romantic elements. She has short stories and poems published in Tied in Pink romance anthology (December 2014) and Poetica Christi’s Inner Child (July 2015), in several upcoming anthologies, and on her website Jeanette O'Hagan Writes. 

She has a medical degree, a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Theology and has completed her Master of Arts (Writing) with Swinburne University of Technology in June 2015. Jeanette loves reading, painting, travel, catching up for coffee with friends and pondering on the meaning of life. She lives in Brisbane with husband, two school-aged children and two cats.

Tied in Pink (Romance anthology for Breast Cancer Research)
You can find her


  1. At the end of the day and when all is said and done, once I unpacked your article and touched base with you, it really rang true. Absolutely!

    Jeanette, I'll always remember you as the girl who killed off the cliches!

    1. LOL Rita I love cliches - but am trying hard to be reformed :)

    2. LOL Rita - It would be fun playing 'Meeting Bingo' with you.

  2. Hi Jeanette, a timely post for me as I burrow down in editing mode. Cliches, yes. So easy to write and can be hard to rid because they're often pleasing to the eye.

    Thank you for the extensive amount of detail in your post.

    1. Thanks Ian. All the best with the editing. Looking forward to seeing your next book in print :)

  3. Excellent post!

    It has been said that clichés aren't all bad: even Shakespeare used them. Of course, they weren't clichés then ... they were fresh, original writing.

    As for what clichés I can think of? Well, the Rugby World Cup is on at the moment, and that's always full of clichés in the after-match speeches: the best team won, they were the best team on the day, it was a game of two halves.

    1. Thanks Iola. That's a great point - often formal or polite speech is full of frequently repeated phrases with a script that everyone follows. Perhaps it stops the eruption of conflict between teams and supporters :)

  4. Great post Jenny. I like the way you've extended cliches beyond the phrases to the characters and plots as well. Some genres in particular have standard plots (e.g., the happy ending in a romance, the capture of the crook in crime novels), but the trick is to put that original spin on them so that they're imbued with fresh ideas. One of the reasons I love the No. 1 Ladies' Detective series and the Flavia de Luce series is that the crime fighters are so original. Yes there are crooks, clues and red herrings, but there's so much interesting stuff going on to keep your interest.

    I love the TV series Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, but there's a common phrase that's really overused in both of them - 'as we speak' (e.g. Sam's working on a solution as we speak; the Hive Ship is being blown to smithereens as we speak). When I worked at Uni, there were also a few common buzzword type phrases that were really overused in meetings (e.g., let's unpack that, let's make sure we put some scaffolding there for the students, let's drill down). On another tangent, I love the spin that Aussie comedy 'Utopia' puts on all those workplace cliches.

    Thanks for your tips Jenny. Great post from you as usual :)

  5. Thanks Nola. Yes, I agree that genre fiction has certain expectations (cliches) like the HEA in Romance or the denouement at the end of a cozy detective story - that readers expect to be there. The trick is to give a new spin to it.

    Had to laugh at the work cliches - I guess in a way they act as place makers, that directs the meeting. Still - we writers have our catch cries too 'show don't tell' for instance :) Thinking about - cliches likes these probably have a place in everyday life - phrases which everyone knows what they mean and what is expected. However, it's different when writing fiction - except perhaps in dialogue - because we want our readers not just to skim along the surface but to plunge in deeper, to see things from a different perspective. On the other hand, it's really hard to express ideas without some recourse to cliches (as I used a few even in this short paragraph). Perhaps the issues is the context and the purpose.


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