Monday, May 13, 2013

Writing in 140: Using Story to Kill Clichés and Freshen Up Metaphors

a clean slate

beat around the bush

step up to the plate

tall, dark, and handsome

ace in the hole

dark and stormy night

Some readers will cringe if they pick up your book and read stale metaphors and clichés like the ones above. With your first draft, you want to get the story on the page, PERIOD. However, in revisions, you want to make a pass for these metaphors and clichés and delete and/or freshen them up. How to do this? A few tips: think about your story’s setting – where are we, what's in this world? Think about your characters – who are they, what do they do? Revising metaphors and sprucing up overly familiar language so that they connect with your story’s context will make them more organic . . . and unique to your story.

Writing in 140 is my attempt to say something somewhat relevant about writing in 140 words or less.

Shon Bacon is an author, doctoral candidate, editor, and educator. She has published both academically and creatively while also interviewing women writers on her popular blog, ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. In 2012, her second mystery, Into the Web and her short story "I Wanna Get Off Here" (in the short story collection, The Corner Cafe) were published. Her next release, Saying No to the Big O, was published April 2, 2013. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University ... and trying to find the time to WRITE.


  1. Right on, Shon. (Cliche) But I think there can be a place for cliches of speech, which is in dialogue. Real people talk that way. In fact, I've overheard conversations where most of the lines were canned quotes. Viz: "I'm up to my eyeballs in alligators." "Me, too. But ya gotta do what ya gotta do." "And it ain't over until the fat lady sings." "You can say that again." "It ain't over until--" "Hearty har har."

    Your dialogue has to fit the characters and context.

  2. Addendum: In some cases your characters themselves can freshen the metaphor. In my WIP, a lawyer refers to the overweight foreman of the jury by saying, "Hang in there. It ain't over until the fat jurist sings."

  3. Shon, I like the idea of your self-imposed (at least I think it's self-imposed) 140 constraint. Thanks for the reminder to reread for cliches and tired metaphors, though I do ditto Larry's posts. And I found your use of the adjective "stale" ironic given the topic. (My "tired" isn't much better. :-)

    Coming up with creative and succinct metaphors is one of the more difficult parts of writing for me. The ones that don't work fluctuate between being a child gifting me a wilted flower and the blowhard at my dinner party table.

  4. Shon, I agree with Larry that dialogue needs to be realistic, and people use clichés -- some people, that is. Teens likely wouldn't use the common ones. They develop their own clichés that often vary from generation to generation. Many people for whom English is a second language are totally confused by clichés because words used in that context are out of synch (a cliché?) with their literal meanings.

    On the other hand, twisting a cliché to fit your story or characters or creating fresh, vivid word picture adds originality to your work and becomes a part of your style. Isn't writing fun? :-)

  5. I like the idea of playing with cliches to change them around. I've seen it done quite effectively in a number of books.

  6. In every single discussion of cliche, everywhere, someone will defend the right of their characters to speak in cliches—to the point that the defense itself has become a cliche.

    Okay writers, feel free.

    But I agree with Shon that cliches are best considered placeholders—a quick stock phrase that you can quickly insert while drafting. Later, while revising, I think it behooves us to reconsider the use of every single one.

    Even in dialogue. Why? Cliches flip a switch in the reader's head: "You've seen this before. It's not important." Skimming ensues.

    Now considering that the quotation marks that set off dialogue are a spotlighting technique in and of themselves—you are signaling the reader to pay attention, with the promise that something important is about to happen—why on earth would you want to draw such attention to a word combination that you didn't even devise?

    Not that I get hot about this topic or anything. ;)

  7. Actually it's astounding how often teens use old-fashioned expressions they have no clue about. I just heard a 13-year-old say, "turn the tables", an expression so outdated, few people my age even know what it truly means.

  8. Speaking of cliches, one of my least favorite used by all ages: back in the day. What a cryptic expression!

  9. Today Buzz Feed is running the derivation of 35 clichés:

  10. Thanks for commenting, everyone!

    I definitely agree that characters need to be themselves... and if a character HAS to speak with sprinkled cliches, OK, but I would still be looking in my dialogue, too, to see if cliches are running the show. If a particular character uses too many of them, readers might find the character cliche, stereotype the character and skim whenever that character comes onto the page, assuming to know what the character will say or think or do.

    LOL... Dani... "back in the day" is like the #1 used cliche in every paper I've read this semester!

  11. If nothing else, your characters need to be authentic, have their own voice. Not a carbon copy of something else. Love the blog!!!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. If a glitch is preventing you from commenting, visit our Facebook page and drop your wise words there: Blood-Red Pencil on Facebook