As Red as a Rose and Other Clichés to Avoid
To kill two birds with one stone. To open a can of worms. To take the tiger by the tail. clichés. Those time worn, dried out and desiccated phrases you’ve heard more times than you can shake a stick at.
Clichés are phrases you’ve heard so many times they’ve lost all meaning. They’re as dead as a doornail. They’re stones thrown in glass houses. They make your writing seem derivative, boring and lacking in imagination.
And if you think I’m not going to lean into every clichéd phrase I can muster during this post, you would be right that I’ll beat this dead horse until it's as useful as a lead balloon.
No, I’m kidding. It’s going to be useful. It’s going to be as good as gold.
Tired of me, yet? Maybe you got up on the wrong side of the bed.
Why Avoid Clichés?
As I mentioned above, clichés are trite and predictable and you don’t want your writing to leave your reader bored to tears. It could signal to the reader that you didn’t try very hard with this piece of writing or that you don’t have the chops to pen a compelling story.
Not only are clichés unoriginal, some of them have gone so far off the rails that their original meaning isn’t even what was intended anymore. Also, a lot of clichés are rooted in problematic beliefs and stereotypes that you don’t want to be responsible for perpetuating.
Clichés to Avoid
There are a lot of clichés out there. Hundreds. Probably thousands. Here’s a list of some of the more common ones you might have heard. And to help you out, I’ve italicized all the clichés I’ve already used in this post because I’m as helpful as a spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
- Bee in your bonnet
- Apple doesn't fall far from the tree
- All roads lead to Rome
- All's well that ends well
- Another nail in the coffin
- Banging your head against a brick wall
- Between a rock and a hard place
- A perfect storm
- Loose cannon
- In a nutshell
- Sleep like the dead
- Laughter is the best medicine
- If these walls could talk
- Dressed to kill
- Everything but the kitchen sink
- Fresh as a daisy
- Glutton for punishment
- Head in the clouds
- Hot enough to fry an egg
- Clear as a bell
You get the idea. You’ve likely heard all these phrases before and you’ll hear them again and again until your eyes and ears just skim over them as they become so much white noise.
One of the easiest places to get stuck in the mud of cliché land is when you’re writing similes. That urge to say ‘cold as ice’ or ‘cool as a cucumber’ is so ingrained in our heads that sometimes it’s hard to put your thinking cap on and try for a more original description.
You can use clichés to your advantage, though. If you find yourself writing something like ‘quiet as a church mouse’, think about how you can twist that. Maybe you can use it ironically and say ‘as quiet as a herd of trumpeting elephants’ to show that it’s definitely not quiet.
Clichés vs Tropes vs Archetypes
You might be asking yourself, what’s the difference between a cliché and a trope then? Aren’t tropes just the same idea over and over again, too?
Well… no. Not really. A trope is more about a theme and a feeling than it is about actual words on the paper. Tropes go a lot deeper than a simple phrase and can be twisted and adapted and modified so that it’s literally a different story every single time.
The entire concept of enemies-to-lovers (my favorite trope) can’t be distilled down to a few words or any specific set of circumstances or characters. It’s about the writer, the tone, the situation, the plot, and the personalities involved.
A trope is just a framework rather than a blueprint. It’s the difference between understanding what a house is and building one from your imagination. Sure, it’ll have windows and a door and a bathroom or two, but it’ll be completely different than someone else building a house from their own head.
Conversely, two people given the exact same set of blueprints (or in this case, a million people) are going to build pretty much the same house. Just look at any circa 1960s-built suburban neighborhood.
The same concept holds true for character archetypes. Yes, they’re also a set of similar traits and characteristics assigned to a certain character, but that’s where the similarities end.
Much like the house example, an archetype is just the outer shell, while the character itself is the gooey center. Pretend we’re talking about chocolate cream eggs and witness me subverting a cliché in all its glory.
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Now that’s an idea to get you on the right foot.
The Chosen One. It’s a trope that many people love to hate despite its pervasiveness across popular culture. If you’re unfamiliar with the Chosen One, it’s a popular trope or narrative device used across books, TV shows, and movies where a character is destined to fulfill a certain role or mission, often because they have unique abilities or traits. These traits are frequently tied to magic, meaning you’ll see this trope a lot in fantasy and other types of speculative fiction, especially those with a young adult audience.
So how do you write well then? Realistically, there are a few things universally considered “good” writing. The story should follow a logical plot where one action feeds into another. The characters should behave in ways that align with their established personalities. There should be some high points and low points and stuff in between. Generally, good writing is also well edited and follows most of the conventions for grammar and punctuation. While you can write well with typos and mistakes, you run the risk of distracting the reader to a point where that good story becomes not so good because it’s unreadable. Ultimately, the success of things like your voice and your characters are going to be up to your reader and you’ll never please everyone. But we can take some steps to ensure we please more people than not.
That’s great—our fiction should reflect the world as it is and that means including people of various ethnic backgrounds and skin tones. But the history of writing about people of color is kind of… awful and it’s important to remember that you can’t just throw in a BIPOC character without giving some serious thought to how you represent and describe that character.