AVOIDING THE CLICHÉ IN YOUR WRITING
So you want your writing to be fresh, eh? You'd like to ensnare your readers with an enthralling narrative that contains crisp, vivid descriptions and realistic dialogue? Well, typically I would congratulate you on your ambitious and stalwart intent -- if it weren't for the fact that most writers set out with pretty much the same sentiment. Some achieve it to varying degree. Some don't. Yet, it's not always the most highly revered writer who does it best.
Clearly, it would be pretentious of me to attempt to mentor anything regarding your plot or your characterisation. The manner in which you conceive and structure your book's exposition, climax, and dénouement is likewise none of my affair. Those rascally literary devices are forever your critters to wrangle and to herd into some legible and coherent formation. However, when it comes to the technical aspects of the craft, I can quite happily oblige you with a few pointers of experiential say-so. And, since I like to keep my blogs pithy and succinct, I'm going to concentrate on only one of said aspects in particular: the cliché.
Yes -- we use them all the time in conversation. We see them in advertising. Popular music is riddled with them. Popular culture banks on them. They're ready-made; they're memorable; they slip off the tongue with nary an effort:
He searched to and fro.
Her mouth ran a mile a minute.
They arrived just in the nick of time.
However, in your book-bound narrative, clichés should probably be as rare as hen's teeth (« see, there's another one!). In fact, the only instance where you might permit a cliché to freely intrude upon your story -- and even here I would strive to avoid it -- is when it arrives through the mouth of one of your characters. And why, you ask, is this? Well, as I stated above, ordinary people use them frequently (and sometimes ad nauseam) in conversation. And to keep your fictional characterisations real, it seems logical for the occasional cliché to issue from your players' lips. But be careful! While it's no crime to allow your "ordinary" characters to utilise clichés in their dialogue, chances are that if you don't endow each of them with some manner of individualised verbal uniqueness, said characters may go right on remaining "ordinary" in the reader's mind. That's why I personally make a conscious effort to employ clichés as sparingly as possible in my own material. Granted, I may not always succeed in this; but I do know that if I am miserly in how I parcel them out, any given cliché will have little adverse effect on the passage in which it appears.
The good news is that, outside of striking clichés from your work altogether, there are options to them. And actually, as options, some are little more than clever knock-offs that truly aren't so very far removed from the hackneyed clichés themselves. My personal preference is to simply tweak whatever cliché I may have been thinking of, and thus give it a new twist, a novel refashioning, a renewed freshness. For example, in my own novel, OF STAVES AND SIGMAS, by weaving a few genre-specific threads through the following clichés, I added new colour to what would have been timeworn and predictable.
Here, in a passage that finds the practical J'nea chiding the reckless earth-man James Wagner on his plot to escape from a gladiator prison, I refitted a familiar cliché to reflect the mediaeval period:
"Going fist-in-gauntlet with your imprudence is your audacity in thinking that
your plan could ever succeed."
Obviously, "fist-in-gauntlet" replaces the more hackneyed "hand in hand," making J'nea's dialogue a bit more flavourful to the reading "ear."
Another example is when the Ergosian Balgor, accompanied by the earthly Wagner, reacts to a setback in their attempt to incite major pandemonium within the prison camp:
He clenched to strike at the wall before him, but retracted in the nick out of
Here, by trimming "in the nick of time" to the shorter "in the nick," I was able to give an unexpected freshness to an overused cliché.
Now, to avoid overstaying my welcome, I've only permitted myself space enough here to demonstrate a few ways to skirt literary repetition and redundance. But, by employing these types of tricks, substitutions, and amendments, anyone can spice up his writing, sometimes with very little major revision involved. Just remember that for every old and timeworn phrase there is often a simple and ready means around it or through it. Your book's appeal -- indeed, its very readability -- may rely on it.