Liven Your Writing Without Clichés & Idioms

The word ‘cliché’ can sound clunky. And using heavy words in creative writing doesn’t always make for a delightful reading experience. Clichés are something we want to avoid in writing and it can be easy to never allow them to slip into our prose.

Clichés are overused phrases that have lost their true meaning over time. At one point, their meaning was purposeful to a conversation or written account. Using clichés is considered amateur and it isn’t thought of as enhancing the scene. Using clichés is unoriginal and isn’t best expressing the story.

There are hundreds and hundreds of clichés. Many of them are still used widely in day to day conversations. “Go with the flow,” “Think outside of the box,” and “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” are just naming a few. Of course, in literature, there is also no other than “It was a dark and stormy night.”

The writer behind the clichéd phrase is Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford. From the words of Barnes & Noble, the story is about “a chivalrous highwayman in the time of the French Revolution. Brought up not knowing his origins and living an evil life, Clifford is arrested for theft. The love of his life is Lucy Brandon. Brought before her uncle, Judge Brandon, for the robbery, it is unexpectedly revealed that Clifford is Brandon’s son. That revelation complicates the trial, but Judge Brandon tries Clifford and condemns him to death. Clifford escapes from jail. With his lover and cousin, Lucy, he makes his way to America.”

An excerpt of Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford begins a little bit like this:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Even A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle begins with “It was a dark and stormy night.” The incredible story and movie is a rare exception.

While “It was a dark and stormy night” was an innovative story opener during its time, it isn’t considered as ground-breaking and unique today. But is there ever a moment in writing when a cliché can fit into the text, match the flow, and not appear dated?

Rule breaking will always have its moments. If pulled off well and thoughtfully, rule breaking can have its own exceptions. However, not all rule breaking will serve the related project best. Substituting the cliché you wish to use with your own writerly commentary that reflects your true voice and style is something each of your readers will appreciate.

Idioms are similar to clichés in that they are outdated and don’t provide extra description to the story. The words are meaningless and are not to be taken literal. Idioms are not a worthy source for writing creatively. Using an idiom in your story can diminish your voice and limit the excitement.

For idea generation and writing inspiration, I gathered some clichés and idioms that are common amongst spoken conversation and have appeared in creative writing from time to time. For each cliché and idiom learn how you can remove it and implement your own words to communicate a similar idea and feeling.

A clean slate.

A clean slate is to start over, “remove” or forget about the past, and begin anew. The original meaning, according to Merriam Webster, relates to a student’s reputation or record which does not show indication of broken rules or other problems. Many teachers will apply a “clean slate” opportunity for students, forgetting about their past behavior and offering them a chance to grow and mature. The cliché of a clean slate can relate to anytime a person wants to start over and experience the new, getting rid of the old.

In creative writing, it is common for our characters to want to run from their past, to distance themself from a part of their life, reinventing themself and pursuing bigger and better things. For each character, their idea of beginning anew will look and feel different. Tap into their perceptions and consider their personal desires and needs to describe their “clean slate.”

They all lived happily ever after.

Stories are known for having clichéd endings too. The phrase, “They all lived happily ever after” first appeared in the early 1700s. Over the course of decades, the conclusion became most known in children’s stories, especially fairytales (Dictionary.com). Many people enjoy a happy ending where all the tragedy and struggles of before have been solved. While fairytales thrive off of the happy storyline, not all books conclude that way.

A story with a happy ending does not need to be embellished and be described in an exuberant way. A story can conclude in neutral territory where the primary obstacle(s) are achieved and a light-hearted, positive tone fills the air. The reader can still feel satisfaction in a short, sweet conclusion and understand the protagonist’s current position and what is ahead of them.

You may chose to conclude your plot in an unhappy mood. This may not be the most common way to end a novel, but it can be done well and provide an interesting element to the story. A sad ending does not have to drop the reader into an unknown space, a cliffhanger before their eyes. Cliffhangers can be either exciting, annoying, or downright rude if a sequel isn’t planned in the near future.

Roses are red…

We all know the rhyme, “Roses are red, violets are blue…” In creative writing, there is nothing I enjoy more than when a scene is composed of perfect description and a mention of its hues and palettes. I like color and I consider my creative writing to be colorful as well. However, mentioning color and comparing it to another object can become a cliché due to its overuse and its lack of insight into the subject.

As red as a rose may sound pretty since nature can often lift an idea, but a rose isn’t the only object that possesses a shade of red. In romance literature, roses are also a cliché as they are an overused symbol of love. A piece of romance literature holds no requirement toward roses.

When writing a colorful scene, make connections to objects of a particular hue that is unexpected, shocks. Select the comparisons wisely as using an object can seem misplaced and odd if it doesn’t complement or relate to the scene.


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