Wednesday, April 11, 2018


All writers are probably familiar with William Safire’s tongue in cheek rules for writers. The last one goes like this:

Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

However, I think they have their place. The most obvious is to put them into the dialog of a character you want to portray and, maybe, unoriginal, uneducated, even superstitious if he spouts old folklore things.

Where else can we use them? They’re shorthand for things that everyone instantly understands.
Here are some I think are useful:
As the crow flies
Bad blood
Chip off the old block
Eat crow
Flat as a pancake
(These examples are from

Sure, you could figure out new and fresh ways to say all of these, but you might not come up with anything better and you might confuse your reader if you don’t hit the nail on the head, so to speak.

Of course, you shouldn’t fill your pages with them and use them out of laziness. I think there’s a fine line. The occasional completely apt cliché can work for you. Too many of them will work against you.

Part of my motivation in defending the maligned cliché is that I hate to throw away finely honed bits of language, wisdom, and lore.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this!

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  1. Dialogue is a perfect place for an appropriate character...just be sure to use one or two for that character all the way through the story. I also believe cliches are sometimes good for a story premise/theme. I.e., When the premise for a romance or love story is "all is fair in love and war," the character is free to do whatever s/he can in order to capture the heart of a lover.

    Loved the blog, Kaye. Dialogue is a great way to use cliches.

  2. Good post, Kaye. Cliches often give us a glimpse into the character of the person using them. I am partial to Texas down-home patterns of speech.

  3. cj, using one for a story premise is a good idea!
    Judy, they can definitely reveal regionalisms and character.
    Thanks for coming by.

  4. I agree 100%. I intentionally broke rules--including the cliche one--in the last short story in a recent collection for the fun of it. I enjoyed writing the story, and one reader commented that she would have liked to read a full-length version of the story. I try to be good in my serious stories, but sometimes "a girl's gotta have fun"!

  5. Sylvia, I LOVE to break rules in short stories. I thought that's what they're for.

  6. Great post. Wanted to share but didn't find any share buttons!

  7. Thanks, Judy. I've never thought of adding them, but I will now!

  8. I agree with all you say about cliches, Kaye. They're overused but get the point across so well! Isn't it great how our characters' dialogue allows up to dangle prepositions, use trite expressions, and worse?

  9. Judy, I guess Blogger doesn't provide share buttons, but it's very easy to share the post. Just click on the title to get the link.

    I know, Marilyn--there's a reason those cliches exist.

  10. I agree. Sometimes a good cliche fits the bill. lol