Idioms and clichés in creative writing

When it comes to creative writing, many of the phrases that are commonly used (especially by new writers and authors) are anything but creative. It is pretty normal to overuse idioms and cliches in writing.

 “A creative writing teacher at San Jose State used to say about clichés: Avoid them like the plague. Then he’d laugh at his own joke.

–          From ‘The Kite Runner,’ Khaled Hosseini

Read the following paragraph.

He slept like a log but woke up in the nick of time before the roof collapsed on him. As luck would have it, he escaped. It was the dead of the night and despite having had a near-death experience he was as cool as a cucumber. 

If you thought, “so what?” about those lines, I’ve made my point.

Now, let’s try that again:

He heard the rumble of metal and concrete and an unusually loud whirring. He looked up in a daze to see what looked like little tremors from the ceiling fan. With an instinctive agility he could muster but could not explain he hauled himself out of the window in a flash just as the roof came down in a terrifying rain of steel and wood and splinters.  He stood outside his chawl in a singlet over a checkered lungi and watched the debris accumulate just as lights came on in the neighborhood. Unfazed he lit a beedi.

Better? Wouldn’t you now want to read about the modern-day Nero in a checkered lungi (you poor king!) who smoked even as his roof came down?

What was wrong earlier?

Those idiomatic phrases, those clichés – that’s what was wrong. It’s okay in regular prose not in creative writing simply because it is not your creation. Idioms originate from the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare and interesting (sometimes English) anecdotes.

Bark up the wrong tree,” for instance was coined when hunting dogs were used to sniff out furry raccoons from trees. Crafty raccoons would apparently clamber trees and switch trees by jumping onto an adjoining branch of another tree leaving the dog below to, “bark up the wrong tree.

An idiom is used to convey a stereotypical situation that everybody might face at some point of time. Wikipedia calls this, “figurative meaning with a common usage” and that’s why you shouldn’t use them for YOU have to break stereotypes with your writing and get your writing into an uncommon and exclusive territory. And, that’s what fresh writing is about.

Beyond idioms, a cliché is an obvious, trite way of saying things. Those are somebody else’s words, not yours and those have been said before.

Commonly Used Word Pairings

(H.W Fowler calls these “verbal twins”)

* Heart and Soul

* Leaps and Bounds

* Hither and Thither

* Hue and Cry

* Nuts and Bolts

* Safe and Sound

* Thick and Thin

* Bread and Butter

* Rhyme or Reason

* Rank and File

* Hook or Crook

* Bag and Baggage

* Sum and Substance

* Ways and Means

* Born and Bred

Common idioms & cliches in creative writing

Open up your novel manuscript and see how many times you’ve used any of the common idioms and cliches in your writing. Ready for it? Take a deep breath and jump in.

At the drop of a hat ~ As luck would have it ~ At the end of the day ~ The bottom line is ~ Every dog has its day ~ From time immemorial ~ No prizes for guessing why ~ Who would have thought ~ From time immemorial ~ Gone are the days ~ The last straw ~ The Ball is in your court (what ball?!) ~ Saved by the bell ~ Raining Cats and Dogs ~ Have your cake and eat it too ~ Cock and Bull story ~ A piece of cake ~ Add Fuel to Fire ~ All in the same boat ~ Back to Square One ~ Bend Over Backwards ~ Avoid Like the Plague ~ Once in a Blue Moon ~ Come Hell of High Water ~ Dropping like Flies Field Day ~ Finding Your Feet ~ Crying over spilt milk ~ Have an Axe to grind ~ Hit the nail on the head

Do you have to avoid them always?

No, not always. It’s okay to use them in dialogue if you are giving your character a defining characteristic. For instance, one of my characters is British and would say every now and then, “Of you go to hell in a hand basket.” Or, if you find a really interesting idiom or phrase that has been out of circulation for a while, you can bring it back.

I really like saying, “Excuse my French” when I want to break into expletives (ladylike and all that can take a….er, excuse my French!) and this stems from the age-old English versus French tensions.

Should you avoid idioms & cliches in creative writing altogether?

No, not altogether. Why don’t you take one of these and give it your own spin?

So think out of the box could perhaps become think outside daal-chawal, like a moth to a flame could become like Dharam Paa-ji to the Dream Girl.  Fit it in to the cultural context of your story. Give it a desi twist.

So what is that freshness in creative writing then?

As I was reading Aravind Adiga’s novel, “Last Man in Tower,” a certain sentence caught my fancy simply because of the image it was creating, the newness it was conveying and here it is:

Early in the afternoon, while all the others were still working, he drove back, the rear-view mirror of his scooter reflecting a quadrilateral of sunlight on to his upper breast like a certificate of clear conscience.

So what is that elusive freshness in creative writing? It’s about creating new imagery from mundane events, it’s about saying things in way that has never been done before, and it’s about using the writing craft to create your masterpiece.

It’s getting your readers to say, “Nice!”

What are some of the other commonly used idioms, phrases and cliches that you’ve come across? Share them as comments.

4 thoughts on “Idioms and clichés in creative writing”

  1. Pierre Francis

    Great site, good post. Although there’s a lot of similar information out there in cyberspace, it’s good to have a store of knowledge, wisdom, and advice with regard to writing at a single site. I should be checking in here quite often. Keep it up!

  2. Mizana

    Thanks for posting this! It was very informative, and I shall be paying more attention to what idioms and phrases I use in my future writings!
    A phrase I often see used in writing is ‘all but’. This is too often used wrong, usually like ‘He was all but dead.’, which is trying to say ‘he’ was dead. However, if you think about it they’re really unintentionally saying ‘he’ was Everything But Dead. ‘He’ was green, ‘he’ was blue, ‘he’ was wearing a polka-dot tutu, but ‘he’ was NOT dead. I see this in many books I’ve read, even hardcover published and several year old ones. It completely baffles me how whoever checked it over missed such an obvious mistake, or let it pass thinking it was somehow right.
    So that’s my little share for this article~ Enjoy~

  3. Lavanya Post Author

    Hi Mizana,

    Thank you for stopping by and liking the post. And, thank you for your insight into, “all but”
    You are absolutely right – it is a misused idiom. We are constantly looking for interesting content and maybe we could do a post on commonly misused idioms and phrases (eg: Whet, not wet, your appetite) ? Hope to see you here again soon!

    Regards,
    Lavanya

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