Whack the Cliché

By Mark Stevens

Is it possible to write a 100,000-word novel that is devoid of clichés?

Completely scrubbed free of all tired descriptions, predictable scenes, over-used descriptions, seen-them-all-before characters?

A panel* on clichés at Left Coast Crime last month in Portland sparked my thinking.

First, check this out:

The word cliché is drawn from the French. (My source is Wikipedia; there are several versions of this.)

In printing, "cliché" was the sound made by a printing plate—one cast from movable type—when it was used. This printing plate is called a … wait for it

A stereotype.

When letters were set one at a time, it made sense to cast a phrase used repeatedly, as a single slug of metal. Thus, “cliché” came to mean such a ready-made phrase.

Cliché—ready-made. Too easy. Banal, commonplace, shop-worn, old-hat, hackneyed.

Sound like a novel you want to read?

A side note, also from Wikipedia: Most phrases now considered cliché originally were regarded as striking, but have lost their force and impact through overuse. The French poet Gérard de Nerval once said "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”

OK, imbeciles, join me over here in the land of predictability and tell me: how do you avoid them? How do you avoid the ready-made crap?

These were a few cited by the Left Coast Crime panel:

The sassy Latina detective, say. Or staging a high-speed chase in the city (and no cops follow or give chase as well). The “slight” gunshot wound in the shoulder, yet our hero carries on. Isn’t a ticking clock, the device itself, a cliché?

Here’s one I can’t stand: the bad guy manages to bring a knife a few millimeters from our hero’s eyeballs, yet the hero’s resistance is j-u-s-t enough to hold it off. Ack!

There are cliché scenes, cliché gestures, cliché sayings, cliché lines of dialogue, too.  "Cover me, I'm going in!" "Is this some kind of sick joke?"

How do you keep the writing fresh, original?

Fill in the blank. As tough as _____.  As cool as a _____.


I mean, 100,000 words—all those characters, all those scenes and all that prose: how do you make sure it’s all original? Fresh?

And, should it be?

Wouldn’t that be exhausting? Can an entire cast of characters in a well-populated novel, every bit of description and every line of dialogue … be original?

Martin Amis thinks so: “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”

So there’s a standard for you.

Worth shooting for?


* The LCC panel was The Taste of Copper and the Smell of Cordite: Clichés in Crime Fiction. Panelists included David Corbett, Lisa Alber, Blake Crouch, Bill Fitzhugh and James Ziskin.

Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the 2016 RMFW Writer of the Year. He writes the Allison Coil Mystery Series, including Antler Dust (2007), Buried by the Roan (2011), Trapline (2014), and Lake of Fire (2015). Buried by the Roan, Trapline, and Lake of Fire were all finalists for the Colorado Book Award; Trapline won. Trapline also won the 2015 award in genre fiction from the Colorado Authors League. Kirkus Reviews called Lake of Fire "irresistible." More about Mark on his website.

5 thoughts on “Whack the Cliché

  1. Mark, I LOVE this post! Perhaps the word cliché is one itself? Words are in place to help us communicate. We “shorthand” with acronyms like LOL and BTW in our everyday need to get through to someone. But a book (no matter the word count) is a dedicated piece of art that not only tells the reader “what happened,” but is meant to say it in such a way that the reader remembers the story long after he or she has forgotten that grocery shopping list, the thank-you note, or the break-up-by-text moments. That’s why we take our time to write long in the first place. We, as authors, want our words to have impact because we are passionate about our stories and what they may mean to our reading public. So while everyday writing is welcome to use and over-use the cliché, when it comes to writing a novel, let’s spend the time necessary to create original phrases and images. And here’s my favorite cliché: Have a Nice Day! 🙂

  2. I’m already self-conscious about cliches because my critique group is so good at catching them. It’s a healthy challenge to our creativity to come up with new ways to say the same old thing. Excellent post, Mark.

  3. That’s one of the things I love about the hard-boiled writers like Chandler. They could turn a potential cliche into a thing of beauty. To wit: “I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.”–The Long Good-bye.
    As for your fill-ins, how about:
    Tough as a cowpuncher’s backside.
    Cool as a mortician’s smile.

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