Avoid Clichés (Like the uh ... Plague).
Updated: Mar 9, 2020
Okay, writing friends, you’d better set your jaw for this one because it might just make your heart pound in your chest, your blood boil, and your hair stand on end. That’s because today we are going to talk about prose clichés. Does that send a chill up your spine? I hope so.
Like any editor worth his pathetic fee, I loathe clichés. If I am reading for pleasure, repeated clichés means immediate DNF (which partially explains why I have more than seventy Amazon samples on Kindle). When I am editing clichés, my eyes roll so hard I have to put my hands up to hold them in my face. Clichés are a plague on your prose. They tell your reader, “Look, I didn’t really want to take the time to think of something remotely original, so I just stuffed this pre-packaged, hackneyed phrase here so you’d know that I mean the exact same thing every other writer means when they use it.”
Now, I’m not going to deny that there are large numbers of readers who don’t give a flying fudgecake about clichés. Many might even find comfort in their familiarity. But if you want your writing to stand out from the dashed-off scribbles of the zombie horde, you need to treat your clichés like cockroaches under your kitchen sink and stomp them out.
I recently edited an excellent epic fantasy novel—gigantic world-shattering conflict, great characters who I cared about and who change throughout the story and who occasionally die, massive set-piece battles, extraordinary locales, high stakes, romance, political intrigue, beautiful magic, basically everything you’d want in an a grim fantasy epic. In its 350-or-so pages, it had ‘heart pounded (inside his/her chest—where else?)’, ‘heart raced’, or ‘heart hammered’ an astounding 180+ times. It (almost) completely ruined my enjoyment of editing the story. Thankfully, the author immediately grasped the problem, and when the book is released, it should be really great.
For the purpose of exploring how to minimize your use of clichés, let’s look at hearts and jaws. Hearts and jaws are important reflectors of characters’ internal feelings. Western culture accepts that the heart is the seat of the emotions. We use the heart in our writing because people understand that that’s where our emotions are metaphorically situated. Trying to change that in your novel would be downright silly and ineffective. Likewise, clenched or set jaws often reflect tension requiring resolve. But how can we use these tropes in a way that doesn’t sound repetitive and clichéd. For that, let’s look to one our favorite writers in one of my favorite books, the incomparable, massive opus, The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie.
Most importantly, we notice that in its ponderous 640+ pages, The Heroes has about 60 instances of the heart used to reflect emotions (thanks to the lovely Kindle search function—try that with your thirty-pound hardcover), so slightly fewer than one every ten pages. It might seem like a lot, but it’s not enough to draw attention to itself as being excessive to the point where it stands out. Moderation is key in any usage. You don’t want your writing to be repetitive. (Repetitiveness is bad. Repetition for effect can be good.)
However, when this familiar cultural concept is necessary to communicate with the reader, it shouldn’t just be plunked down conveniently without any thought. Most of the time when Abercrombie uses the heart, he adds a twist to it that makes it his own and not same trite phrase (‘his heart pounded in his chest’) that shows up in so many lesser works. For example, his “heart was going so hard in his ears he thought it might pop ’em right off” is classic, graphic Abercrombie. Similarly, “his heart was thumping so loud in his ears, so hard it felt like it might pop his eyes right out.” In the first chapter of the book, ‘The Times’, Abercrombie writes, “He found his way through a gap in the tumble-down wall, heart banging like a joiner’s mallet.” Not only does this give the reader the feeling of tension from heart, but it uses an atypical verb ‘banging’ for the usual ‘thumping’, and very subtly tells us something about the world, the times, of the story. It takes place where and when joiners use mallets, a rustic place where tools are still made of wood. Abercrombie is so adept at avoiding the same old trite usages that he is even able to call attention to them and undermine them: “Craw looked after him for a moment, wondering whether he was happy the thumping of his heart was softening or sad.” Craw’s heart is ‘thumping’, but he doesn’t quite know what to make of it. That’s pretty savvy in my opinion.
Abercrombie is just as crafty about using the jaw as a metaphor for tension and resolve. Instead of the usual “He/she set his/her jaw” over and over ad nauseam, he might use an actual, interesting visual image: “jaw muscles squirming in the side of his head as he ground his teeth.” Or he might infuse the jaw-as-tension-and-resolve metaphor with some addition information to build a character’s physical appearance: “the jaw muscles working on the side of his out-sized head.” Best of all, again, is when he subverts these clichés: “That was the trouble with pride, and courage, and all those clench-jawed virtues bards love to harp on. The more you have, the more likely you are to end up bottom in a pile of dead men.” The more jaw-clenching resolve you have, the more likely you’ll be killed. Abercrombie even goes so far as to subvert the very jaw-clenching cliché itself: “Here is war. Here it is, shorn of its fancy trappings. None of the polished buttons, the jaunty bands, the stiff salutes. None of the clenched jaws and clenched buttocks” … “Like a scene from the tales [Bremer dan Gorst] had read as a boy. Like that ridiculous painting in his father’s library of Harod the Great facing Ardlic of Keln.” War is death and murder and blood, not the clichés that are written about it, the jaw-clenching and the heart-pounding that are used repeatedly as shortcuts to generic emotion.
All if this is not to say that Abercrombie doesn’t include some usages that probably could have been tweaked a little: “his heart was pumping fire.” I mean, what does that even mean? And “His heart leaped…. His heart leaped again,” which could just as easily come from a Hardy Boys novel. However, even these simple usages are not repeated. Each usage (except by intention) is unique and does not immediately recall seventeen other instances of the same wording in the book, which allows the reader to absorb the intended effect without, perhaps, calling attention to the somewhat stale usage.
Of course, the same idea applies to all those tired phrases—blood boiling, breath catching, etc. If you find yourself writing something that looks like it came directly from ten other books you’ve read, don’t do it. Give your readers something real—emotion they can feel and entertainment that strikes to the… uh… heart—by avoiding clichés. Pull those tired phrases out, stomp on them, gut them, work them over until they are no longer clichés. Make them your own. Your readers will appreciate it (or at least your editors will).
Mike Myers is senior editor at British Fantasy Award Nominee Grimdark Magazine, and has worked in this capacity with such amazing authors as Mark Lawrence, Brian Staveley, Anna Smith Spark, Michael R. Fletcher, Aliette de Bodard, Alex Marshall (Jesse Bullington), and many more. He is also the editor of the r/fantasy Stabby Award-winning anthology Evil is a Matter of Perspective. He is available for freelance editing and can be contacted through his website at www.sffeditor.com.