Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 6, 2010

8 Common Cliché Mistakes

Yesterday, Jerry B Jenkins had a good article on the Writer’s Digest website about 8 Basic Writing Blunders.  Here are some excerpts:

1. Morning-routine cliché

Clichés come in all shapes and sizes. There are just as many clichéd scenes as phrases and words. For instance, how may times have you seen a book begin with a main character being “rudely awakened” from a “sound sleep” by a “clanging” alarm clock? Have you written an opening like this yourself? Wondering where to start, you opt for first thing in the morning. Speaking of clichés, been there, done that. We all have. Don’t ever do it again.

Compounding that cliché is having the “bleary-eyed” character drag himself from his bed, squinting against the intruding sunlight. And compounding that is telling the reader everything the character sees in the room. What comes next? He’ll pass by or stand before a full-length mirror, and we’ll get the full rundown of what the poor guy looks like.

Are you cringing? I’ve done the same kind of clichéd scene. Resolve to leave that whole morning-routine cliché to the millions of writers who’ll follow in your footsteps.

2. Answering-the-phone cliché

Another deadly cliché is how people answer the phone. This happens even in the movies or on stage. Be aware of yourself the next time your phone rings. It’s such a common occurrence that we don’t even think about it. But one thing you likely do not do is look up, startled. You don’t turn and look at the phone. You know where it is; it’s been there for years, and you’ve heard it ring before. You simply rise and go answer it.

If your character gets a phone call, resist the urge to have her look up, startled, then rise, cross the room, pick up the receiver and say, “Hello?”

3. The clutter of detail

Give your readers credit. If you tell them Mary phoned Chester, they can assume he heard the ring, stood, moved to the phone, picked it up and introduced himself. You’d be amazed at how many manuscripts are cluttered with such details.

Even in a period piece where the baking of a cake from scratch is an engrossing trip down memory lane, the good writer gives readers credit for thinking. While she may outline all the steps the heroine goes through to make the cake, she’ll avoid having her rise and stride to the kitchen or even pull open the oven door—unless there’s something about that oven door novel enough to include. If the character has to use a towel to lift the iron lid, fine. But if she does that, we know she had to stand and walk first.

4. Skip the recitals of ordinary life

We all get dressed, walk out to the car, open the door, slide in, turn the key and back out of the driveway. If your character backs into the garbage truck, that’s a story. Just say it.

5. Don’t spell it out

One of the clichés of conversation is feeling the need to explain more than once what’s going on, as if the reader can’t figure it out on his own. I actually read a novel in which, when a character said something quirky like “promptly, punctually and prissily” (which was actually funny and fit the personality), the author felt the need to add, “he said alliteratively.”

Other writers have a character respond to a diatribe from another with “Yep,” or “Nope,” or a shrug. Perfect. I love to learn about personalities this way. The character is a man of few words. But too often, the author intrudes, adding, “he said, eschewing small talk.”  Avoid the temptation to explain.

6. Pass on the preachiness

If your whole reason for writing is to pontificate on, for example, the dangers of certain habits or lifestyles, you risk sounding preachy. I see this problem in many manuscripts: all talk, straw men, plots contrived to prove a point but little that grabs and subtly persuades the reader. If your theme is the danger of alcoholism, simply tell a story in which an alcoholic suffers because of his bad decisions and give the reader credit. If your story is powerful enough, your theme will come through.

A rule of thumb? The Golden Rule. Put yourself in the skin of your reader. Read your piece to yourself and imagine how you’d feel at the end of it. Does the story or nonfiction article make its own point? Has the writer (in this case, you) added a sermonette to the end? When in doubt, cut it out.

7. Setting the scene

Because of the proliferation of all sorts of visual media these days, it’s more important than ever that novelists write with the eye in mind. Fortunately, just as in the days of radio, what can be produced in the theater of the mind (in our case, the reader’s mind) is infinitely more creative than what a filmmaker can put on the screen.

Although I’m encouraging you to be visual, I eschew too much description.  

I recall an editor asking me to expound on my “oily geek” computer techie in one of my books in the Left Behind series. I argued: (1) he was an orbital character, and while I didn’t want him to be a cliché from central casting, neither did I feel the need to give him more characteristics than he deserved; and (2) he was there to serve a purpose, not to take over the scene, and certainly not to take over the book.

The editor countered, “But the reader will want to see him, and you haven’t told us enough. Like, I see him in his 20s, plump, pale, with longish, greasy hair and thick glasses.”

What could I say? “Eureka! You just proved my point! All I wrote was that he was an oily geek, and look what you brought to the table.” Every reader has his own personal vision of a computer techie, so why not let each mental creation have its 15 seconds of fame on the theater screen of the mind?

8. Coincidences

In real life, I love coincidences. I’m fascinated by them. In fiction, more than one in each novel is too many, and even the one has to be handled well. (In comedies, sure, coincidences are fun and expected. How many times in “Seinfeld” do the characters run into the same people they tangled with early in the story?)

Say you invent a yarn about two people who marry, come to hate each other and get divorced. Years pass, and each fails at yet another marriage. Available again, they run into each other thousands of miles from home at a bazaar in Turkey. Bizarre is more like it. People won’t buy it. If the couple reconnected at their high school reunion, that would be plausible, or if they both chickened out of that event at the same time and ran in to each other at a fast food place nearby, that would be an interesting, more believable coincidence.

Click the link below to read Jerry’s full article.

No update report today, except that Ann Rinaldi has signed up to attend our conference in June.  She is a well-known author of 47 YA Historical Fiction books.  Didn’t even know that she lived in New Jersey, but I am glad she is joining us.  Hope I will have more to tell tomorrow. 



  1. It’s funny, Kathy—–I saw this today too, but didn’t take the time out to read it; I just saved it. Now YOU post it here and I read it! You are a very powerful woman! LOL


  2. This was a great post, Kathy. Thanks.
    I’ve been amazed you post every day as it is, but with the Conference, too? Go, Kathy!


  3. A great post. I am currently taking a travel writing course, so I found this information very helpful. Although I will say for the co-incidence part, running into someone you know overseas is possible. It has happened to me at least 10 times, where I have unexpectedly ran into old friends in places around the world!!


    • Caroline,

      I’m laughing, because everytime I put something in a novel that is completely true, I have an editor say, “That could never happen.” And I know that it did and does happen. Proving life is stranger than fiction.



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