Monday, January 05, 2009

Deadly Cliches

I've been going through and trying to clean my office lately, which means plowing through a stack of snail mail partials that were left over from the dark ages. I'm sending all the responses to those via e-mail, by the way, and I'm *not done yet*, so please don't ask if I've read it. I'll post here when I'm done, and then if you haven't gotten an e-mail, you can shoot one over.

But anyway, while I've been reading through the partials, I've decided that the time had come to do a list of deadly cliches. Basically, these are terms or descriptions that can kill your writing in one blow, since as soon as I read one, I'll be rolling my eyes. (See, using cliches to describe cliches!)

An incomplete list includes the following examples.
  1. "Notched her chin": Because obviously, I wind my chin up like a piece of adjustable furniture, and therefore, it clicks when it goes up each notch.
  2. "With trembling palm": How often do your hands tremble? And if your hands are trembling, which is rare, unless you have a disease, how does a palm tremble independently of a hand? See where I'm going?
  3. "Scalp prickled": Not an effective descriptive term. My scalp doesn't prickle, and if it did, I'd assume something was wrong with it.
  4. "Blood charging through veins": Is something chasing the blood?
  5. "Glimmer of enthusiasm": They shine, do they?
  6. "Glint in her eye": And now the character becomes an anime character, complete with huge eyes!
I could go on, but I want to know which cliches bug you the most.

Hit me with your best deadly cliches in the comments. =)


Ann Victor said...

"her eyes twinkled" irritates me (and yet it sometimes slips into my own writing. Cliches are so dangerously easy to use.)

Jarucia said...

Does 'craned his neck' count? For the life of me I can't make any sense of this image and the few times I've tried to put it in to my own writing I start think near-Exorcist.

marikris said...

"You're like my own little (insert the word "drug," or a name of a drug)." I said before that I haven't read Twilight, but when I saw the movie, I had to roll my eyes twice when I heard Edward proclaim this to Bella.

Justus M. Bowman said...

"Skin fluffed like goose dander."

AC said...

Don't know if this is quite a cliche, but stuff like this gets on my last nerve:

"I love that place," he smiled.

Ok. Smiling and talking are NOT the same thing. Either,

"I love that place," he said with a smile.


"I love that place." He smiled.

acpaul said...

Hands trembling usually isn't a good thing, I agree. And palms don't tremble independently. I've seen trembling hands in a variety of situations. None of those people were healthy. Or particularly afraid either.

But 'Blood charging through through veins' really gets me annoyed. Veins are LOW pressure. Blood doesn't thunder through them, it can't. The vein walls would burst. That would be bad.

But I also get annoyed at all expressions of emotion related to the heart. He/she warmed/broke my heart. The heart is a pump. Emotions come from the mind/brain, not the four-chambered, two cycled pump that runs blood through your vascular system.

ryan field said...

"Her/his loins were on fire."

BJ said...

Ah, but AC! While it may not be literal, it *is* descriptive. Who hasn't felt the pangs of disappointment or heartbreak in one's chest and/or veins? And that has a biological basis, too. The adrenalin gets going under the stress and makes the heart beat faster. The 'breaking' of the heart is simply an exaggeration of what is really happening.

For cliches, there are a few that bother me, but I've blocked them from my mind and can't remember them right now. One thing that really bothers me is when someone misuses a cliche, throwing in the wrong words or using it for something it's not meant to be used for. If it's poetic/descriptive language, that's one thing. If it's just not knowing what you're saying, it bugs me.

Mel Hiers said...

"His eyes followed her across the room."

I imagine him picking carpet lint off of them later.

"Her fingers sought his."

Finally! A mate for Thing!

Anthropomorphic body parts doing things independent of their hosts kinda freak me out and yank me out of a story.

Renee said...

Ouch! I'm sure I'm guilty.

Ink Johnson said...

That's funny--I've only ever heard the "glint in the eye" cliche, and only then in the phrase, "I've known you since you were just a glint in your daddy's eye." I'm not even sure what notching one's chin means. Scratching your chin? Tilting your head? I would hypothesize that they're regional cliches, but since these partials come from all over the US, that can't be right. Maybe my region is just provincial.

Scheherazade said...

"Skin fluffed like goose dander."

I have never heard that, and have no idea what it means. But I quite like it.

Elissa M said...

I'm not sure most of these cliches would bother me if they were occasional and the writing in general was engrossing. I like "craned his neck" because it evokes a bird-like image for me. But if the character frequently "cranes" his neck, it would get old fast. Any phrase used too often becomes cliche, even if you made it up.

Of course, things that make no sense, like notching one's chin, would definitely annoy me.

Jodi Meadows said...

Race against time.

Any sentence involving ordinary/extraordinary.

Lisa Iriarte said...

Hmm, most of the ones I can think of are in romance, like "milky breasts". Ew.

On a side note, if you are digging through snail mailed partials, does that mean you're caught up with emailed ones?

Not pushing. Just asking. Making sure mine arrived ok.

Anonymous said...

I at least understand #2-6, but what the hell does "notched her chin" even mean? I have no idea what action that is intended to describe.

In fact, I must respectfully disagree that it is a cliche; I've never seen it before. However, I completely agree that it would make me roll my eyes and stop reading.

Perhaps it shows up a lot in slush but has been successfully eliminated from published works.

Nancy said...

"Pretty as a rose."
"Clever as a fox."
There are many many more, but I seem to be blocking them from my mind at the moment. Generally women being described as flowers irritates me.
Good entry Jenny!

Nancy D'Inzillo

Maniac Scribbler said...

Cliches annoy me like stereotypes annoy me. But I see the use in them; if there weren't a use, they wouldn't be cliche!
ManiacScribbler =^..^=

BJ said...

And (after a bit of research) trembling can be an acute stress reaction, which is how it is usually used in writing. But I agree that 'trembling palms' is a bit much.

Yes, I'm a research whore.

James Buchanan said...

There are entire books that I would add to the list (the most notable would be "Eat, Pray, Love").

I think the larger point would be that if you don't feel that your dialogue, character development and story are enough to bring the reader's focus to where it should be, your writing is going to be full of these cliches. In particular, dialogue can do more to provide an image in the reader's mind of how the character feels and is reacting to a situation than a mountain of overused and cliche phrases.

This is something I have been working very hard on lately in a couple of short stories I am writing and a memoir I am writing on the year I spent in treatment for cancer (I have samples on my website at It makes writing a bit more of a challenge because you have to be so much more aware of what is landing on the page and being placed in the character's mouths. If a single word does not wring true you have suddenly ejected the reader from the story.

James Buchanan

Sharon Cullen said...

I don't like sentences with "wildly" in it. "She looked around wildly." What the heck is that supposed to mean???

Anonymous said...

What if you use cliche' and acknowledge it as such?

Example: With nothing left to lose, she surrenders to Nike's cliched "Just do it."

Maybe the whole sentence is cliche?

I agree that here and there a cliched simile or metaphor won't bug me but constant use will.

I'm guilty of the extraordinary/ordinary.

Richmond Writer said...

I have experienced fear that was so great my hands trembled. Fear also causes the blood to course rather rapidly through the body due to the fact that the heart beat increases in response to the need to go into survival mode, summing it up as charging would be more literary than a long scientific explanation that draws the reader out of the story.

No, I have not submitted anything to you.