Guest post: Creative but not cliched by Jody Hedlund

I found Jody by following a tweet about her book.  I liked what she had to say on her blog about writing and getting published, so asked her if she would be a guest poster for the workshop.  Jody chose to address the topic of cliches, and I think you’ll like what she has to say.

Creative But Not Clichéd

Why do writers slip so easily into the cliché trap? I was a judge for a writer’s contest in the spring, and I ended up having to give lower marks to some of the entries for the use of clichés. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about clichéd writing—especially how I can avoid it in my own books.

Often we think that only new writers have the problem of using clichés, that seasoned authors have learned to express themselves more uniquely.  But what I’m realizing it that it’s a trap for any writer at any point in the writing journey, because clichéd writing has more to do with laziness than ignorance.

Cliché by definition is:

  1. a trite phrase or expression;
  2. a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation;
  3. something that has become overly familiar or commonplace.

When we use a cliché, usually we’re not pushing ourselves hard enough to do the work of finding something more original. Often we gravitate toward the commonplace because those are the ideas already in the front of our brains. They simmer there, a jumble of all of the books and stories we’ve ever read.

But as we all know, traditional publication doesn’t come easily in today’s market. And a book or story that smells of cliché is usually going to garner us a quick “no thanks.” In fact, if we’ve worked on our writing skills, improved our story-telling abilities, but continue to get rejections, we would be wise to consider if anything about our books hints at cliché.

What ways do writers slip into the cliché trap? And how can we push ourselves harder to go beyond the trite words and stories at the fronts of our minds to the deeper thoughts and unique expressions just waiting to be discovered?

1. Clichéd descriptions

“Her lips were as red as roses” or “The flowers bloomed in the colors of a rainbow.” Anytime we describe something, whether the setting, emotions, or a character, to get beyond the clichéd we need to use our mind’s camera. We have to focus on the specific details a particular character would notice while in her point of view and think of the kind of words that character would use to describe things.

In every scene, I’m learning to slow down and use the five senses to describe the tastes, smells, sights, touches, sounds that are unique and important to my character.

2. Clichéd characters:

“The hunky, macho hero who can save the world and the beautiful, but helpless damsel in distress.” It’s all too easy fill in our characters like we do the figures in a coloring book. We can dress them up, pick a hairstyle and eye color and think we’re being unique.

But to go beyond clichéd, we have to make a concerted effort to infuse the very breath of life into them. That doesn’t come without time and effort getting to know them, their past hurts, goals, motivations, etc.  If you need a comprehensive character worksheet, I’ve made mine available for free on my blog.

3. Clichéd plots:

“The runaway heroine falls from her horse and is rescued by the dashing hero who just happens to be riding by.” Of course, we’ve all heard it said that there are no new plots, that every conceivable basic storyline has been written numerous times in one form or another. I’m not sure if that’s really true. But the point is that most plots are probably clichéd.

We may not be able to re-invent the wheel, but we can, however, find new, clever, and daring places to drive it. It requires us to cast aside the first, easy plot ideas we have, and instead ask questions like: What problems would hurt the character? What kinds of issues would make life more difficult for her? What surprises can I spring upon her? What winding, downhill trail can I make her stumble down—something that increases tension each step of the way?

There are other numerous cliché traps we can fall into with our settings, themes, romances, etc. The point is that we should always be challenging ourselves to disregard the easy writing material, the ideas that come to our minds first. Instead we need work harder and search the far reaches of our brains, continually training ourselves to delve into greater depths of creativity.

Are you avoiding the cliché trap? Have you done the hard work of sifting through all your ideas and finding the original ones? What else do YOU do to be creative but not clichéd?

Jody Hedlund is a debut historical romance novelist who was a double finalist in the 2009 ACFW Genesis Contest in Historical Romance.She’s represented by agent, Rachelle Gardner of Word Serve Literary. Her first book, The Preacher’s Bride (Bethany House Publishers) is releasing in October 2010.

Jody received a bachelor’s degree from Taylor University and a master’s from the University of Wisconsin, both in Social Work. Currently she makes her home in Midland, Michigan, with her husband and five busy children.  You can find Jody on her blog, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Thanks Jody!  What do you think, readers?  How will you measure up to Jody’s questions?

15 thoughts on “Guest post: Creative but not cliched by Jody Hedlund

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  4. I avoid cliches like the plague. (Couldn’t resist it.)

    Anyway, half the fun of writing for me is coming up with interesting ways to say things.

    And while we’re on the topic, why is “willowy” a compliment? And why is it so often applied to blondes? Willows are droopy and have bark. Seems like that should only apply to old female dogs. O.O

  5. Jody, great article. I suspect I use a lot of cliches when I am writing rapidly, in a freewrite or in a hurry to get an idea on paper. You are so wise to suggest slowing down. I can’t appreciate the details of my own life when I’m in a bustling hurry — and I’m sure the same goes for my characters’ lives.

    I had a thought about Mary C.’s question, and that is that maybe a twist on the cliche could be amusing or a kind of sly wink at the reader, if it is a clever twist or reinvention of the cliche. Maybe at first it looks like that bell ringing is the worst possible thing that could have happened at that moment — and then at the conclusion of the story’s arc, it turns out to be the saving grace. Or maybe it only looks like she’s being “saved by the bell” — but then that saving turns out to be anything but salvation, or causes such a series of complications that the character comes to wish the bell had never been installed. Maybe at some point the bell gets stuck and won’t stop ringing.

    Maybe at the end she gets to bash the bell in with a hammer or something. ;)

  6. Cliches creep into my work, and I do my utmost to send them packing. As you said, Jody, it takes more effort to produce fresh ways of saying things, but it’s worth it. I love reading a story in which the author uses vivid descriptions I’ve not heard before.

    I was challenged recently to explore trite or cliched mannerisms in a post by Harvest House editor Nick Harrison. Because of him, I no longer allow my characters to roll their eyes or heave frequent sighs. Here’s the link if anyone is interesting in checking out the post:


  7. I’m sure this doesn’t surprise you but sometimes I can “overly” creative. Some of my out there metaphors work and some are laughable, but hey…at least they aren’t cliche. :D

    Can’t wait to read your book, Jody!
    ~ Wendy

  8. What bothers me about cliches is when people use them with the word proverbial. It’s like putting a big exclamation mark on the fact that you’re using a cliche, you know you’re using it, but that word is supposed to somehow make it all better. However, like any pet peeve it could just be a personal thing.

  9. Mary Asked: “How do people react to a writer deliberately playing with cliches?”

    My Answer: I think that if it’s completely obvious the writer is playing on words, that’s different. However, I think that “being saved by the bell” is definitely a cliched plot idea and an easy way out of trouble for our characters. What would increase tension and conflict is for that poor character NOT to be saved by the bell! That’s my 2 cents for what it’s worth! :-)

  10. Hi Jody,

    What a wonderful, thoughtful post. You give some excellent questions to think on while I’m revising one book and working on another.

    I have a question that I’ve been wondering about. How do people react to a writer deliberately playing with cliches? For example, I was working on a scene the other day in which the heroine is literally saved from answering something by the bell ringing. I toyed with the idea of using “saved by the bell” but in a way that was clearly playing with the cliche. I’d love to hear what other writers think about doing that.

    Again, thanks for sharing your knowledge.


  11. My first drafts are always written quickly. Sometimes, during my second trip through them, I’m suprised to see that I have used a cliché.
    When I’m writing fast, in order to keep the story flowing in my head, the clichés just slip out!
    So I am very guilty of using them.

  12. Impressive advices. Really, it is an adventurous to come out from cliches or shed prejudices or apriori thought or theme. Writers should think something original rather than following an old theme as you say. Your article is really inspiring and directional.


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