Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Making Clichés Your Own

by Jill Williamson

From Dictionary.com:

[klee-shey, kli-]  Show IPA
1. a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser,  or strong as an ox.
2. (in art, literature, drama, etc.) a trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.
3. anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse.

You’re all likely familiar with clichés. They could be idioms, which are impossible phrases like, “It’s raining cats and dogs” “there’s a method to my madness” or things like “alabaster skin.” It’s just been used so much it makes the reader roll his eyes. Here is a short list. Ha ha.

We’re all in the same boat.
Break a leg, okay?
Why don’t you just cut to the chase?
The soldiers were dropping like flies.
She had everything but the kitchen sink in her purse.
I’ve got a gut feeling.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
In your face, punk!
She’s a loose cannon.
You the new kid on the block around here?
Over my dead body!
Practice makes perfect.
I smell a rat.
The third time’s a charm.
Mom always turns a blind eye to her little brother.
I’m feeling under the weather.
He wined and dined me.
X marks the spot.
She’d give her right arm to get that.
I’m sick and tired of this!
He was a born and bred farm boy.
If she played her cards right, she’d win.
He was dead wrong.
The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
This was child’s play/like taking candy from a baby.
She had cherry red lips.
I was dog tired.
The book bored him to tears/bored him to death.
His face turned beet red.
He cried like a baby.
I was green with envy.
He ripped it to shreds.
His eyes danced/sparkled.
She had full lips.
It had coal black eyes.
Don’t tempt fate.
A cacophony of sound split the air.
This is new and improved me.
His eyes were as deep as the ocean.
She was higher than a kite.
The kid was as cute as a button.
It was as soft as a baby’s skin.
It was as hard as a rock.
She ran around, shrieking with joy.
He smelled like a dirty diaper/rotten eggs.
The dress was fire-engine red.

I could go on and on. And I’m guilty of having used a cliché here and there. That’s the problem! Some of these phrases are so common that I don’t even realize I use them until I catch them in rewrites or after the book is published. Ack!

Here is what I recommend. When you find a cliché in your story, make it your own. Tweak it a little or a lot, whatever works best for your character and storyworld.

For example:

He smelled like a dirty diaper/rotten eggs.  -->  He smelled like the outhouse after Uncle Dan used it.

We’re all in the same boat. --> We’re all in the same wagon.

It had coal black eyes. --> It had eyes that looked like someone had blacked them out with a Sharpie.

The voice of your character matters a great deal too.

She was higher than a kite. --> She was as high as a 747. (Dad’s voice.)

She was higher than a kite.  -->  She was as high as the balloon my sister lost today. (Teen’s voice.)

She was higher than a kite.  -->  She was as high as Mariah Carey’s vocal range. (Woman’s voice.)

Your assignment: rewrite this list! Then pick your five favorites and post them in the comments. If you don’t have time to do the whole list, pick five. But this will be good practice.


  1. Questiong :) Could you use a cliche but add your own twist to it? Say all your characters are in a life boat and one says, "Hey, we're all in the same boat here ... literally."
    Would that stop readers rolling their eyes? :D

    1. I'd roll my eyes at that one! Ha ha.

      Try to give them more of a twist, unless that particular character is a goofball whose always making those kinds of jokes and people are always rolling their eyes at him. Those characters can add fun to a novel.

      Giving it your own twist would be something more different, like, We're all in the same Prius.


  2. I only had time to do three, but these are ones that my family actually says on a regular basis.
    Over my dead body- over my rotten corpse.
    I was dog tired- I felt like a half dead dog who's been run over by a semi-truck and run through a meat grinder, twice.(that's mine for when i have a headache)
    It's raining cats and dogs- It's raining like a tall cow (my dads)
    ...why yes, we do live out in the country and enjoy talking hillbilly, just to have fun. How did you know?;)

    1. LOL!!

      I love "It's raining like a tall cow."

      Ha ha. Good job with those, Maddie. :-)

  3. Thanks, Jill! Is it good enough to take the cliches and just change them minimally, such as "Anything she owned was stuffed into her giant purse, except for her cottage" or "I smell something very foul and I don't like it."

    1. Yeah, you're getting the idea. Though the purse/cottage one stops me because I think, would someone who lives in a cottage own a purse? Cottage feels medieval or fairy tale-like, and people didn't tend to carry giant purses then. So maybe "apartment" instead of "cottage"? Unless it is medieval, then maybe "coin purse" or "knapsack" or something older sounding.

  4. Interesting! Hadn't just sat down and thought about this before. Here's my 5:

    1. The soldiers were dropping like flies. --> The soldiers were falling like trees in a forest with an active lumberjack.

    2. This was child’s play/like taking candy from a baby.
    --> This was like picking flowers.

    3. His face turned beet red. --> His face turned ripe-tomato red.

    4. His eyes were as deep as the ocean. --> His eyes were the kind that always held intrigue.

    5. It was as hard as a rock. --> It was like asphalt in the middle of a hard winter.

    Quesetion for you...Does #4 work or not???
    This was fun, once I got going! (er...should I say "This was fun, once I lifted off like an airplane?" haha)

    1. LOL

      Nice, Whitney!

      I like #4. It doesn't really give us a color, but that's okay if what you're wanting to show us is the thoughtfulness of his eyes. It's all about what you want to say with the cliche that you are trying to rephrase.

  5. We’re all in the same boat = We're all on the same horse (lol)

    Break a leg, okay? = You got this, so just do it all ready

    Why don’t you just cut to the chase? = Just spit it out all ready

    The soldiers were dropping like flies = Man after man went down

    She had everything but the kitchen sink in her purse = Her purse doubled as a survival kit for life

    Hm...do these work?

    1. :D I also love the "survival kit" part. If you don't mind, I might actually use that one of these days. ^_^

    2. Sarah,
      Good job! The "Just spit it out, already" is a bit cliche, too, though. People say that a lot.

      I LOVE "We're all on the same horse." Nice one! That's the one I'd steal. But I won't. ;-)

  6. @sarah
    I love the survival kit purse:)

    1. That one is good. That is one prepared lady. :-)

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  8. Here goes:

    1. The soldiers were dropping like flies everywhere -- soldiers dropped like birds shot out of the sky
    2. You've hit the nail on the head -- you've shot the dart right into the bullseye
    3. A cacophony of sound split the air -- a shrilling voice shattered the silence.
    4. He cried like a baby -- He wailed like a whimpering puppy
    5. His eyes danced/sparkled -- his eyes shown like two bright stars in the night sky.

    Hope these weren't too bad. Thanks for the post!

    1. I like your dart in the bull's eye one, Jill! It's like a combo of "hit the nail on the head" and "bull's eye!" But the wording feels very knight-like. Clever. :-)

      Good job on the others too. But be careful comparing eyes to stars. That's a little cliche. Lots of people have gone there with eyes.

  9. He cried like a baby=He cried like a jaded toddler.
    I was green with envy=My envy was dark and unquestionable, the color of an emerald.
    He ripped it to shreds=He became a temporary paper shredder.
    His eyes danced/sparkled=His eyes seemed to frolic.
    She had full lips=Her lips were as full as the curved lines on my antique armoire.

  10. Nice ones, Katia! I love that paper shredder one. It makes me think of the old Tasmanian Devil in the Bugs Bunny cartoons.

  11. Paulina CzarneckiJuly 25, 2012 at 1:13 AM

    What about cliche situations?

    1. I'm going to talk about those tomorrow, Paulina!

  12. I have SO much trouble thinking up "my own" cliches. I loved your "sharpie" example though. Just goes to show that, just think for a bit and you can come up with amazing phrases that are all your own. Heaps inspiring post!

    1. Thanks, Cait!

      You can! Sadly, not always when you want to! LOL

      Now I need to think of a place to use the Sharpie line. I think I have one too. If only I can remember...

  13. 1. The soldiers were dropping like bullet shells.
    2. Over my numb toe!
    3. Third time’s a charm... or just a sign you're stubborn.
    4. He cried like a pregnant lady watching a romance film.
    5. She had gummy worm lips, tight and full.
    6. His eyes were as deep as the well Timmy fell down.
    7. He smelled like the far end of a dump.

    I couldn't pick five :)

    1. LOVE #6!... and 4... and 3... and 7 too :)

    2. Great job, Random! Those were really fun and unique. I see you have a humorous streak in your voice. Love the Gummy worms lips. LOL

  14. She'd give her right arm to get that - She'd pawn her brother for that/She'd give her last spur to get that

    The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence - The fog is always thinner on the other side of the forest

    Why don't you just cut to the chase? - Why don't you just skip the prelude and go straight for the crescendo?

    I smell a rat - Is it just me, or do I smell vermin?

    He smelled like a dirty diaper/rotten eggs - He smelled like Stu after a month with no shower or toothbrush

    1. Good job, Lydia! Those are all great. My fave is the fog one. Though I like the others too, for the right characters. The crescendo one is very clever.

  15. It's raining cats and dogs -It's like Niagara Falls out there