I’m Over My Head, Needless to Say, and Deader Than a Doorknob

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Have you heard the following cliches?

. Deader than a doorknob

. Things got out of hand

. Better than ever

.  Little did she know

.  Jumping out of my skin

. Avoid him like the plague

.  For some reason

.  It was beyond me

.  There are plenty more fish in the sea

.  She stuck out like a sore thumb

. I’m over my head

. Out of my league

. Head-over-heels

. Needless to say

.  Thick as thieves

.  By the skin of my teeth

.  Hook, line, and sinker

I’m sure you’ve heard many of these often.

How often do you use them in your fiction? Hopefully never, but the truth is that we all say them even when we least expect it. And sometimes they show up in our writing.

See what I mean?

Have you ever listened to the way we talk?

For instance, why do people say, “To tell you the truth…” when they’re telling you a story? Aren’t they always telling the truth?

Read the definition of CLICHE by The Free Dictionary by Farlex

cli·ché also cliche  (kl-sh)


1. A trite or overused expression or idea: “Even while the phrase was degenerating to cliché in ordinary public use . . . scholars were giving it increasing attention” (Anthony Brandt).
2. A person or character whose behavior is predictable or superficial: “There is a young explorer . . . who turns out not to be quite the cliche expected” (John Crowley).

[French, past participle of clicherto stereotype (imitative of the sound made when the matrix is dropped into molten metal to make a stereotype plate).]
Synonyms: cliché, bromide, commonplace, platitude, truism
These nouns denote an expression or idea that has lost its originality or force through overuse: a short story weakened by clichés; the old bromide that we are what we eat; uttered the commonplace “welcome aboard”; a eulogy full of platitudes; a once-original thought that has become a truism.

It’s important for writers to avoid cliches and keep their writing fresh. I think the word PREDICTABILITY is the one to focus on. As writers, we should try NOT to be predictable.

How do we avoid cliches?

  1. The first thing to do is identify them, learn what they are
  2. Then switch one of the words to make the phrase your own
  3. To avoid story cliches change the plot so it’s not predictable
  4. Be creative

Let’s try:

There are plenty of fish in the sea.       There are plenty of bulls in the herd.

She stuck out like a sore thumb.            She stuck out like an M & M in a a package of Skittles.

Thick as thieves.                                        Thick as two women shopping for a deal at a shoe sale.

Deader than a doorknob.                         Deader than a fossil.

By the skin of my teeth.                             By the skin of my elbow.

I’m head-over-heels                                   I’m upside down and backwards.

Down to the wire.                                       Down to the bone.

Avoid cliches like the plague.                  Avoid cliches like a man with a nasty temper.


There are story cliches too. Those are the plots that happen too often in fiction, the stereotypes and predictable tales. Here’s a list of the TEN TOP Story-telling CLICHES.

How to Turn a Story Cliche Upside Down:

Mix up genres and professions. Put men in non-male roles and vice-versa.

For instance, in one of my novels, Aunt Stephanie (Fifi for short) wears skinny jeans and stilettos, but her job is to put electric dog fences in people’s yards. The job is unusual, something different from the norm. It’s makes Fifi’s character more interesting and little quirky.

In Cache a Predator I made the mom in the story a drug addict. So often we read about dead-beat dads. I wanted to change the typical and show a dead-beat mom.

In DEFENDING JACOB the twist at the end of the novel is one we don’t see coming, but it makes total sense and is believable. (I don’t want to spoil it with specifics if you haven’t read it yet.) But the ending is loved because of its unpredictability.

Avoid starting the story in a dream. The reader will feel cheated if you don’t let them know right away that your character is in a dream, but it’s best to avoid the dream scene in the first chapter.

Don’t start your novel with your character waking up for the day. Too many novels have started this way.

The mirror trick–don’t have your character look at herself in the mirror and comment on her looks.

The way to rescue clichés may lie in exploring those parts of the story that don’t belong firmly to the cliché. By investing our characters with concerns and struggles that point away from the hackneyed and sensational and toward the earthier dramas of “ordinary” existence, by taking the most trite elements of our stories out of the foreground and putting them in the background, we begin to lift them out of cliché.–Peter Selgrin, The Writer’s Digest

What’s a cliche that you find too often in fiction?

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  1. Absolutely great information. I’m saving this post. And you’re so good at switching the words to make the phrase fresh!

  2. Yes, cliches are the bane of good writing for sure, but I know they slip into my conversation and writing. One I see a lot is “shouldered his way”….

    • Hi Judy –
      I have NOT heard of that one. Isn’t that crazy? Is it a southern term?


      • No. It was in a list of cliches i think it may have been in William Zinser’s book On Writing Well? cannot remember but see it a lot.

  3. Carol A. Hyatt says:

    Noted this. Thanks. Good to get my head back into writing.

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