Clearing Up Cliches


Our main goals as bloggers is to connect with our readers. The best way to do that is to give them an emotional experience. Since cliches are, well . . . cliches, little or no emotion is invoked when the reader reads them. In order to determine how to best rewrite cliched phrases, we must first consider what emotion we want to describe.

“Shaking in my boots” is a worn-out phrase that describes fear and dread. How else can we describe those emotions? One of the best examples I’ve read comes from the late Douglas Adams:

“He inched his way up the corridor as if he would rather be yarding his way down it.”

This quote gives the reader a visual image and helps us “feel” Arthur Dent creeping up the corridor. It conveys the emotions of fear and dread.

It takes effort to come up with descriptions that aren’t tired and overused. For instance, a critiquer told me I needed a punchier opening sentence (don’t we all?) on a novel I was writing. The lead in almost any piece must perform many functions: introduce the reader to the main character or concept, set the tone,  evoke emotion, and, most important, intrigue the reader enough to continue.

So, how did I convert my lame opening into one sentence that fulfilled that list of demands?

First, I called for backup. My son has an imagination that never ends. He immediately agreed that my first sentence needed scrapped and asked me that magic question, “What emotion is it that your character is feeling?” I knew the answer. Dread. She would rather do anything than what she was about to do.

When I told him that, he asked, “What do women dread?” I mentally listed things most women dread, bypassing personal events such as mammograms. I stopped when I reached eyebrow plucking. If I have to choose between plucking my unibrow to look good in contact lenses or just wearing glasses, I’ll pick the glasses every time.

Since he’d never experienced eyebrow plucking, he ventured into the bathroom and returned with some tweezers. Ouch. He agreed this task merited the feeling of dread. Since the novel was Chick Lit, we decided we needed an “over-the-top” description of eyebrow plucking. My son played with the tweezers for a few minutes and realized they worked in a similar manner as chop sticks. Viola! We had the opening:

“Plucking my eyebrows with chopsticks would be a welcome alternative to the task on my agenda this evening.” The sentence shows the character’s dread. Introduces the character’s sassy manner, setting the tone for the novel. Plus, hopefully the reader will be intrigued and begin wondering, “What’s on her agenda?”

But even though we were going for over the top, that opening went a bit too far — almost so unrealistic that it’s comical. By backtracking a bit more, I explained that she was broke and had agreed to do something she would have otherwise never done had she not been so desperate for money.

We finally came up with this line:

“The only force with sufficient power to propel my feet forward is the inescapable awareness of my checkbook balance.”

Without going too far, the line conveys the character’s dread as well as the fact she’s broke and desperate.

Yes, plopping in a cliche is much easier than spending the 20-minute brainstorming process my son and I did to develop that line. Every sentence in your blog posts might not need that much attention, but considering the job of the opening sentence, I felt it was time well spent. And those with whom I’ve shared that sentence felt it was a great opening line for the novel. Woo-hoo!

Today’s Exercise:

Tell what emotion the following cliches are attempting to describe. Rewrite at least one of the cliches. Please share your answers in the comments section.

  1. She drew a blank.
  2. The committee was at loose ends.
  3. Don’t get all bent out of shape!
  4. That was too close for comfort!

Trackback URL:


#1 Fat Tom on 11.11.09 at 9:42 am

As always…great stuff! I feel like I am getting a free education on writing just by following onbloggingwell. Gracias!!!

#2 Linda Fulkerson on 11.11.09 at 9:45 am

@ Tom — Da nada!

Leave a Comment