Do Cliches Have Their Place?

Before everyone jumps into the debate at once, let me clarify. In many cases, clichés are just what they sound like—overused, tired and a little bit lazy. But, BUT…I sometimes wonder if there are times when they can be acceptable, nay, even helpful for writers.

Think about pacing, for example. I don’t know about you, but there are definitely times during fast-paced scenes when I don’t want to spend an extra beat on a new, unique and out-of-the-box description. A cliché will do just fine. In fact, I’d argue that it helps move the action along simply because it’s so expected and allows readers to gloss over it, absorbing the needed details very quickly without breaking their nail-biting, edge-of-their-seats pace.

You can also use a twist on actual clichés to have a little fun and deepen your world. Check out Anne McCaffrey’s unique take on “necessity is the mother of invention.”

Necessity—or, is it jealousy—hatches many a touch shell. 
It conveys the same sentiment as the original, but gives a glimpse of her character’s mindset (jealousy) and the world (dragons – eggs – shell).

After all, Madeleine L’Engle started one of the best known and best loved fantasy books — A Wrinkle in Time — with one of the oldest clichés in the book: It was a dark and stormy night. Not that I’d recommending trying that again. The point is she was able to take a cliché and successfully turn it on its head.

It’s all in how you choose to apply them.


  1. Cliches can come in useful, as you say, to avoid coming up with something new, but if I ever use them, I keep their use to an absolute minimum. That said, sometimes trying to avoid them feels so forced.

    I'm not a big fan of "it was an emotional roller coaster." Using it is a bit lazy.

  2. I agree with you. Just like there are moments when telling is better than showing.

  3. I agree - there are some places where using a cliche just makes more sense than struggling to find an original phrase, especially in action sequences, or if it fits in with the protagonist's voice. I treat the "don't use cliches" rule like "don't use passive voice", "show don't tell", and "don't use adverbs/dialogue tags other than "said"" - these are all useful tips to bear in mind, but that doesn't mean the rule can't be broken if it works for the story.

  4. I do think they work sometimes, because readers will know exactly what you mean when you use it.

  5. I think you are right, the occasional use of clichés is useful, and I bet I use them in speech all the time and cannot think of a single one.

  6. I agree, a cliche really can help, as long as they don't take over your writing.

    I don't really have a favorite cliche. Whatever works, goes, but then I do try to freshen them up a bit.

  7. I think you've got a good point - action scenes need to keep pace, and using something as familiar as a cliche gives the reader some sense of the familiar so they aren't distracted with adding a new metaphor or analogy into their brain while reading an action scene.

  8. I definitely think cliches can work and should be used. After all, it's normal to find them in speech. People are used to them, and something too off the wall won't resonate as well as a cliche at times.

  9. I definitely think it's all in how the cliche is used. I recall beta reading for someone and finding the cliches they used to be tiresome, but others didn't bother me. Sometimes, I think it's all a matter of preference--like most things. :) Great post, Nicole!

  10. I think every word or phrase has its place...even cliches! I know I use them more often than I should, but now I'm drawing a blank. :)

  11. Miss Cole: The "emotional roller coaster" bugs me too.

    Natalie: Yup, as long as we use it wisely. :)

    Emma: Great point!

    Alex: Right, otherwise you'll end up tripping over the cliche and doing an on-page faceplant.

    Jo: Haha, that happens to me all the time. I had to stop and think about examples to use for this post, too.

    Misha: I think freshening up traditional cliches often creates the best of both worlds - creativity AND quick understanding.

    Jamie: Exacly! As cool as unique prose or description can be, it can also be distracting in the middle of intense action.

    Cherie: Good point about using them in our normal speech. You're right!

    Ashley: Beta readers are a great way to sort out which ones work and which don't.

    Michael: Bah dum pum! :)

  12. I love fresh twists on cliches. I also think the originals have their place if used wisely, like in character dialogue.

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