Considering Cliché: A Writer’s Unforgivable Sin?

The very first piece of advice that I remember anyone giving me about writing was, “Avoid cliché.” I was ten. I had to look up “cliché”. So now I have a question.

Dickens father of clicheA cliché is a word or phrase so worn out by overuse that it has deteriorated until it is meaningless. It may once have been striking. Today it is white noise.

The gentle reader ignores it. The ungentle critic berates the writer for laziness and lack of originality.

Dickens got away with “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done,” because he thought of it first. After that it became popular, then heard widely, then untouchable by any writer with pretensions to respectability.

Cliché, the Reader’s Friend?

Yet there is a reason that many of these phrases have become “over-used”. They embody, often with telling economy, a recognisable truth. They communicate.

And originality can be overrated. I could create a wholly original language. Let us say I called a mug of tea a gluglug because I thought it felt and sounded right. What would that say to other English speakers? Let us conjugate:

  • I am original.
  • You are endearingly eccentric.
  • She has lost her marbles.

What would happen if I asked for a gluglug in Starbucks? Embarrassed laughter and a barista looking for rescue.

Communication? Zero.

Perfect Placing of the Cliché

À propos conjugate — I remember fondly the delicious scene in South Pacific where glamorous Émile de Becque and bubbly Nellie Forbush from Arkansas walk round each other, painfully aware of their failings as a suitable companion for the other. not knowing what to say.

“I have many books here,” he says at last, desperately. “Marcel Proust? Anatole France? Did you study French at school?”

“Oh, yes,” says Nellie, because she did.

“So you speak French?”

“No. I can maybe conjugate a few verbs.”

It is the absolute antithesis of the cliché romantic scene. They’re strongly attracted but awkward, clumsy and unconfident. He was also undisguisably middle-aged, equally compelled and daunted by her youth.

And then he breaks into Some Enchanted Evening, a ballad about one of the acknowledged clichés of the romantic genre, the recognition of the stranger-beloved at first sight across a crowded room.

The Cliché of That Look

woman across a crowded roomOne of you is talking. Or listening. Or pouring wine.

The other one looks up. Your eyes meet. The focus narrows to just that one person. And you both know.

It may be a shared joke. It may be overwhelming sexual attraction. It may even be love, true love — or something darker. But you both know there is more to come.

And the room chatters on unaware of it.

Same Old, Same Old — Or Is It?

story tellerIt’s been around a long time, that look. In song, story and Shakespeare.

“At the first sight they have changed eyes,” says Prospero gleefully, as his daughter encounters her first people and fixes instantly on the teenage hunk.

“A thousand people crammed in one place, the only face is you,” sang Randy Edelman in one of those songs-with-a-story that I love so much.

And in the 1995 movie we have Sabrina, Louis, a Paris café, an exchange of looks and suddenly the attraction is explicit and going somewhere. He’s gone over to talk to friends, sees her considering him, stumbles, raises a questioning eyebrow, tries to go back to what he was saying but now he has seen her looking and that is where he’s focused, no choice about it. It’s a beautifully observed little moment in one of my favourite films.

So yes, familiar. Commonplace, even. Because it happens in real life. Watching that scene in Sabrina, I see friends. Heck, I see myself.


So here’s my question. I have a scene at the back of my mind. It’s not out in the light yet. I could still let it go. But it’s getting closer all the time. Two people, a crowd, That Look …

Do I let it continue to grow? Or smother it now because it’s too much of a cliché? Advice, please!

14 thoughts on “Considering Cliché: A Writer’s Unforgivable Sin?

  1. Sue McCormick

    You may need to try it out a bit. Are your characters leading you there? Are will they freeze up when the get there?

    You are writing a romance here (at least I think you are); you are going to be stuck with frequently used situations. All romance writers are, because there are only so many ways to meet and interact that are also familiar enough for readers to believe in them.

    But character-driven stories, rescue those moments from the cliche. Because we readers believe the characters and that they WOULD act that way.

    I think that I’m telling you what you know. I am trying to say that many of your readers will know this also, and will act affirmatively to a character-driven common event.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Ah, I feel better now you’re calling it a character-driven common event, Sue! Shall hang on to that one. Thank you.

  2. Liz Fielding

    Ah, the look… That perfect moment when anything can happen. It may be a cliche but it’s such a perfect moment. Great post. And thank you so much for the music. The dh burst into Some Enchanted Evening the other day but Phillip Quast does it better!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Philip Quast is wonderful, isn’t he, Liz? I’m not surprised he’s an award winner. I think that in part it must be because he’s intrinsically an actor. i met him many years ago when my friend Stephen was in A Christmas Carol at the Barbican with him. At the time I didn’t even know that Philip was a singer. But he was a heck of an actor.

  3. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Cliches are fine for the first draft when you are getting the story out of your head, and so are purple passages and other horrors. It’s easier to remove them once you know your characters better and see what they do and how they think because then you can replace the cliche with something which is made to measure for that particular character in that particular situation. I agree with Sue here.

  4. Elizabeth Bailey

    Personally, I think you can always get away with that first look romantic moment. It just depends how you write it. We all recognise it – the point of cliche as you say – and we all remember it. Even if it didn’t lead anywhere in the end, it’s happened to us all, I believe. Go for it.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Yes, that’s true. I’m certainly of that number, anyway.

      Shook me to the core at the time. Didn’t believe it really happened until that time. (I was very young!)

  5. janelovering

    I’m not sure actions can be cliches (all humans act the same way in given situations, don’t they?) and it’s word cliches that I really object to.So it wouldn’t be the ‘meeting of eyes’ that would give me pause, it would be the description. I think readers like to read about common situations that they can relate to, but in words and ways that they may never have thought of – which gives a ‘normal’ situation a whole new spin!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Righty ho. What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed. No pressure then.

  6. lesley2cats

    Oh, please, write it! You’ve got me wanting to write one, too. And completely off-topic, do you remember that Philip Quast taught Philly at RAM?

    1. Sophie Post author

      Think I have to give it a go, with all this advice. Thank you Lesley.

      Coo, lucky old Philly. I didn’t know that.

  7. Gabrielle

    Hello there
    What I tell my students of creative writing is that cliche has its place in characterisation, in that dialogue containing cliche often reflects realism in a character (since we all tend to slip into cliche in day to day speech). Also, cliche is there to be subverted. We have a lot of fun in writing groups writing a par or two in nothing but cliche, so that people are aware both of when and how to use it, and when they might be overusing it.

    Writer of Four Riddles for Jane Austen (and her artful maid Tilly)

    1. Sophie Post author

      That sounds like a fun exercise, Gabrielle.

      Of course, there are clichés and clichés. Someone told me that “Up to a point, Lord Copper” was a cliché these days. I had to go and lie down in a darkened room to recover.

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