Cliches are your worst enemy as a writer.
They’re death to you because a cliche is someone else’s thought, and, worse, it’s a phrase or image from your culture’s collection of junk-thoughts that are most often said to fill up dead, silent, useless space.
Such words are not golden. They’re trash.
Cliche is the mark of someone who is uncomfortable with their own turn of phrase, who doesn’t know how their own creativity works. That’s the opposite of a writer’s task.
Cliches are fine for office emails. But as a writer, you must l-o-v-e LOVE creating your own original thoughts, striking your own observations. Simply repeating the stock phrases, pieces of wisdom, plot devices, character traits, and story lines of so many others is inexcusable for a writer. Read tons and learn to spot tired cliches (or better, trendy statements that will SOON be cliches). Weave diamonds with your sentences and make reality out of thin air.
To do that, you need to write in the truth of the truth. You can’t do that if your brain churns out cliches, which are sentiments, ultimately. Symbols of feeling, and not a feeling itself.
“That’s the way it goes.”
“It is what it is.”
“I love her more than life itself.”
“Curses, foiled again.”
These are symbols of feelings. They’re melodrama, not drama. You can write a cliche in the first draft, that’s cool, if it’s a place marker for where you can drive in your shovel and dig up the gold later.
Let me show you exactly how to do this. Answer me, por favor: In the story you’re writing right now, what does your main character want more than anything? Write it out in a single sentence as an “I” statement. Make it emotional. Make it hurt. Break your own heart with that sentence.
If you need some inspiration, take Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride as an example: What does he want more than anything? Revenge. He says it when he first meets the Man in Black and repeats it frequently throughout The Princess Bride. He wants to kill the six-fingered man and pay him back for killing his father. Boom. That’s it.
Now…that’s a cliche. And in the storybook world in which writer William Goldman operates, he lets that tired cliche stand through the whole movie. But he is going to deliver a twist that makes it all work and freshens the cliche with real feeling. Goldman knows that revenge is not the heart-breaking “I” statement, nor is it the real truth of Inigo Montoya, the real feeling that his character feels in the pit of his heart. REVENGE is something fine to write on a note card next to your hero’s name. But when writers say “write the truth,” this is what they’re really talking about:
“I want my father back, you son of a bitch.”
That’s the line. Montoya doesn’t want revenge, really, and Goldman knows it. But he holds it back, let’s Montoya come to that line in the most dramatic moment so the line is yanked our of him. Finally, facing the villain of his dreams, Montoya says, “Promise me riches! Promise me everything I desire!” He doesn’t say, “Ha ha! Vengeance is mine!” or “Now I have you!” Goldman is too good a writer for that. In the final moment when Montoya finally has his quarry cornered, Goldman let’s the real feeling out, and it’s like a gunshot. We realize this is not just a cliche storybook fairy tale. There’s a true feeling to be experienced.
That’s your goal in writing your character’s greatest want. If you can’t give yourself a sob, raise a shiver in your own skin, or imagine readers looking up from your book in sheer awe when you distill that character’s longing down to a single sentence (and then use it when it’s most effective in your story), then you haven’t hit the truth of your character’s truth yet. Get closer. Jump the rails and sneak past the symbols of feeling, the sentiment and cliche, the stories your teachers, friends, parents, and family approve of. And write the fuck out of that character.