Tweak a Cliché Into Something Original

I wrote this article, which originally appeared on Suite101, on how to take a cliche and make it something wonderful.

Tweak a Cliché Into Something Original

Take a Tired Phrase and Make It Zing

Utilize a writer’s voice, a writer’s brand, phrase additions, and key words to change clichéd phrases into fresh prose.

The old saying, “There’s nothing new under the sun” is very true and a death knoll for writers. How can writers come up with fresh prose when it’s all been done before? How can writers avoid using clichés when sometimes there’s no other way to say something?

Utilize Your Unique Writer’s Voice

There is often a way you say things that is uniquely you—utilize it in your prose.

Here’s an example from my book, Single Sashimi:

Venus Chau opened the door to her aunt’s house and almost fainted.
“What died?” She exhaled sharply, trying to get the foul air out of her body before it caused cancer or something.

The last sentence, especially, people have remarked sounds very much like my speaking voice.

Each writer has a unique way of phrasing, or word usage, or cadence. Develop your writer’s voice and utilize it to its fullest.

Utilize Your Writer’s Brand

Often, your unique fiction niche can help you turn a cliché on its head.

For example, from the same novel as above:

Jennifer Lim entered the foyer with the look of an oni goblin about to eat someone.

Because my niche is Asian American fiction, the use of oni goblin is both unique and a twist on the typical cliché of a character being so angry they looked like they wanted to eat someone.

Utilize your own unique fiction brand to twist clichés into interesting turns of phrase.

Add To a Cliché

He looked like a deer in the headlights.

While this is cliché and boring, a writer can add a phrase here or there to make it no longer just a cliché, but something more interesting to the reader.

He looked like a deer in the headlights of a very. Big. Semi truck.

Suddenly, the reader knows there is eminent (but comical) danger for this character ahead.

When you look at a cliché phrase in your writing, see if there are little phrases you can add to it to make it convey more to your reader.

Play Off of Cliché Words

He smelled something fishy.

This is a cliché, but it’s also better than writing something boring like, “He was suspicious.” But how to avoid the cliché police?
The cliché is well-known enough that the key word “fishy” will be sufficient to clue the reader into the meaning behind the cliché—that there’s something suspicious going on. So a writer can take that key word and play with it a bit.

”Bro!” Eddie reached out arms to embrace him, but Charles stepped back. He didn’t smell anything with his nose, but nonetheless, his brother stank. Of something rather fishy.

When you spot a cliché in your writing that is fairly well known, see if you can take a key word and rewrite the sentence around the key word rather than the entire cliché.

Be Your Own Cliché Police

It might be necessary to be ruthless when it comes to finding your own clichés since we tend to skim over them without thinking. But if you can turn your clichés into nuggets of sparkling prose, your writing will be fresh and catch an editor’s attention.


  1. Thanks for the suggestions. Instead of leaving out all cliches, I'll know how to include them. After all, in real life we speak in cliches all the time.

  2. Thanks, guys! I'm glad it was helpful to you!

  3. I love tweaking cliches. I do it to dialogue I've written too. I take a line of dialogue that is too tame and tweak it like you did these cliches. Sometimes it takes two or threes tries to get something better, but it's amazing how it can sparkle.

  4. I haven't read the article yet, but I've always liked how your characters compared stuff to things in their life, like something stinking like some kind of Asian food. Yeah, my memory stinks on any particular examples, lol, but I just wanted to say that you do a great job with that. Looking forward to the article.


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