I’m a great user of clichés – in the first draft. I write quickly to get ideas down before my mind overworks them – and clichés pour out onto the page.
Clichés are first thoughts – the phrases we use in speech to put feelings into easy words, the phrases that our minds insert to complete another person’s sentence. Clichés are so familiar they’re a barrier to digging deeper into feelings and motivation. By writing clichés down I get these predictable thoughts out of the way. The next step is to examine them – and change them.
Here’s an example from Book Two:
When I saw she wasn’t a phantom, I breathed a sigh of relief.
This is a clichéd reaction. A reader could predict the end of this sentence. It denies the character the chance to experience something new and it stops the story from evolving.
Here are some ways I use clichés to dig beneath the surface.
This is one of my favourite writing tricks. I flip things all the time, including clichés:
When I saw she wasn’t a phantom, I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief. I …
… felt aggrieved that I’d fallen for a psychic trick. Again.
… realised my hand had just slapped her across the face.
… wondered what lie she was about to concoct to explain her appearance.
… felt my relief flip to anger. Then impotence. How was I going to get rid of her?
By flipping the cliché, the mind allows the character to experience a new reaction – often something unexpected. This opens up other possibilities for the story. In a redraft, the words didn’t breathe a sigh of relief would be deleted. The cliché has done its job.
This also bends the cliché out of alignment and leads to fresh thoughts:
When I saw she wasn’t a phantom, I breathed a wordless curse. She hadn’t finished with me yet.
When I saw she wasn’t a phantom, I choked back a sigh of relief. A shadow just passed behind her eyes and I knew I couldn’t trust her.
When I saw she wasn’t a phantom, I tried relief but it didn’t work. Phantom or not, she was trouble.
Notice the cliché as a shallow thought and start digging for a deeper reaction.
When I saw she wasn’t a phantom …
… I watched her approach with a new sense of dread. She was real. She was here. And she was smiling at me.
… I noticed something even stranger about her. Strange and scary.
… I remembered something my mother used to say … then wished I hadn’t. Mum was dead. I was on my own.
Trying to avoid clichés is a form of resistance and getting beyond them to fresh ideas works better if I embrace them, get those comfortable feelings that they represent onto the page, then go looking for an edge.