Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing get answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber. If you have questions for our expert, you can submit them to [email protected]

Language

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How do I know if something is a cliché?

George Orwell described clichés as those images, concepts, or phrases that have “lost force.” Most clichés probably started off as fresh and exciting, but have lost their energy over repeated use. For example:

He was tall, dark, and handsome.

Her heart skipped a beat.

She worked like a dog.

We’ve all heard these phrases before and understand what they mean. But they don’t evoke an interesting image or a compelling emotion. In fact, images probably don’t arise at all. We don’t picture a dog straining while engaged in activity at the phrase “worked like a dog.” Because it is so familiar, we jump straight to what it means: she worked very hard.

Clichés are not our own words. Someone else came up with that combination of words. We use them as an easy way to express a sentiment. But creative writing isn’t about finding the easy way. It’s about precision. So, if you’ve heard it before, it’s a cliché, and best avoided.

One noteworthy exception is dialogue. Since clichés abound in real life speech, including them in a character’s dialogue can add authenticity or help to characterize.