Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Upcycling and Upending Clichés

By Bonnie Randall 

Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)

I am crafting a new project, and isn’t it true that every once in a while you crank out a line that just knocks your breath out?

Except in my case it’s more like a throat-punch than a gasp because the line usually stinks That. Bad.

This time it was “She knew it deep in her heart of hearts.” Wait, what? Did I retain that from some circa 1970’s Harlequin Presents novel I pilfered from my Grandma? Seriously. The only thing a line like that could win is a cliché contest, and even then it totally sucks. And yet…it got me thinking. Clichés. What do we do with ‘em? Do they ever serve a purpose?


Please chime into the comments if you have uses for clichés that I miss, but here are the few ways I think they can actually work:

When They Are a Character or Setting Quirk

A Minnie Pearl sort of character may well speak in a series of colloquialisms. So too might the uber-serious crone of your project, the person who acts as the Chorus or sage. Clichés might help define the character as:
  • Someone too shy to have their own thoughts 
  • Someone so akin to his/her time or place that they’ve essentially become its spokesperson 
  • Someone you need to be the epitome of their region / profession / era or age 

Clichés can also offer poignancy or humor in a way that lines less universally familiar simply do not. A well-placed cliché, set sparingly into your project, can provide irony or illustration of theme and tone.

Proceed sparingly though—especially when having a character roll out a lot of clichés in their dialogue. Readers can and will become exasperated easily unless they are really on-board with why the clichés are being used as a device. 

Dragging a Cliché To its Extreme

Use your humor. Be aware of the cliché in your narrative and play with it to make your reader smile by going to its extreme variant. Consider:
“It wasn’t just raining cats and dogs. A whole petting zoo was falling out of the sky and I was sure if I waited long enough, Noah might plop down too.”

Or the opposite direction:
“It had stopped raining cats and dogs. Now only a few kittens and a couple Chihuahuas were falling out of the sky.”

What about:
“To say there were skeletons in that closet was a little light. There were enough bones in there to make Arlington jealous.”

“How many skeletons are in your closet?”
She shrugged. “I wouldn’t exactly say they’re whole skeletons. Maybe just a femur or two.”

Grow it:
“Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile” becomes “Give him a millimeter and he’ll take Manhattan”.

Or shrink it:
“Thin as a promise” is now “As anorexic as a wordless promise”.

Play. Have fun. The intention of a cliché is to drive a point home. Good writing drives points home to the extreme too—or insidiously suggests points and leaves the reader thinking. Messing with clichés can help you get creative in either direction. 

Consider the Depth of The Cliché (And Make it Deeper)

Back to “She knew it in her heart of hearts”. Obviously, I am trying to convey that my character knows something that she doesn’t want to admit aloud—and in the context of the story, it is crucial that my reader knows that she knows this. So I played with ways to keep this concept, but make it stronger, richer, and more unique to the character and the journey she’s on. And so:
“Far down, in the tiny, locked basement of her heart, she knew he was right” and “Deep down, in the darkened cellar of her gut, she knew she agreed” are new contenders. Why such ominous imagery? Well, my character is agreeing to murder, a dark deed that needs to come from a dark place.

Long story short (ha! See what I did there?) consider the atmosphere, the emotion, and also the physical feeling of where the cliché is in your project—then change it accordingly to make it your own. Even the tired “She released a breath she didn’t know she was holding” gets upcycled when you tap into the physical response to relief and you have: “A rush of air from her lungs left her shockingly weightless.” Or how about “She smiled and butterflies filled his stomach” becoming “She smiled and it was a fistful of sparklers started sizzling in his belly.” Oodles of options with millions of words, phrases, and feelings.

Okay—now it’s your turn. Got a way to upcycle a tired cliché into something more meaningful, powerful, poignant or funny? Go!

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About Divinity & The Python

Divinity - Where deception and desire both hide in the dark...

The Cards Forecast Work

Shaynie Gavin is so much more than the sexy siren who mixes cocktails at The Python. A carpenter with a business plan, Shaynie is trying to amass enough funds to launch her own dream - Divinity, a place where up-cycled furniture from the past is sold alongside Tarot readings forecasting the future - and all in a setting that could not be more perfect: a former funeral parlor. Shaynie's belief that Divinity is attuned with the passions, the loves, and even the lies of its departed souls, allow her to feel satisfied when the cards she draws there reveal Wands, the Tarot's symbol for work. And yet...Shaynie would be so grateful if the Tarot would also, just once, illuminate a Hellnight from her past. A lost evening whose scars still slither over her skin, Hellnight haunts Shaynie. Yet when she calls the question of that chilling evening into her deck...

The Cards Forecast Love

...and love appears in the form of pro hockey star Cameron Weste. Weste is haunted by scars and superstitions of his own, and he wants Shaynie's Tarot to answer far deeper questions than she first guesses this sexy Lothario to be capable of. Who knew Weste was this intense? The Tarot, apparently. And yet...

The Cards Forecast The Devil

When Cameron Weste lands in her life, a stalker surfaces too, dropping clues to a connection between Shaynie, Cameron, and her lost, brutal Hellnight. Suddenly every card warns of deception, and nowhere feels safe. Shaynie and Cameron have to fight for their love - and their lives - as The Devil, their stalker, is determined to turn the Death Card for them both.


  1. Hi Bonnie

    Former Edmontonian here. My calculations have you living in Drayton Valley somewhere.

    I write paranormal romances and use expanded and reshuffled cliches many times. They contain a wealth of metaphors that resonate as new material. And once-in-a-while a character uses a cliche legitimately. Rules are made to evolve.

    I'm intrigued with your cold 'exhausted' souls. What a great image. Thank goodness I live on the west coast now. Winter is always spring on Vancouver Island.

    1. Ah, the Island. Every Albertan's dream...
      Edson, not Drayton, but close, oh-so close.

      The truths inherent in clichés are diamonds to mine and I could not agree more: rules are malleable entities that shift from project to project. Ron Rash writes breathtaking grit-lit / literary prose set in the Appalachian area of the US, and the clichés he employs could not be more fitting to his stories.
      So good to 'meet' you, Veronica :)

  2. P.S. I'm currently writing book two of a paranormal adventure series starring a sentient building that moves a middle-grade fantasy novel into a story for young adults. Buildings with souls makes perfect fictional sense to me.

    1. It made an abundance of sense to me too when under the guise of winter the souls rose out of the skyline of Edmonton's downtown core and the concept of Divinity & The Python was borne.
      The old morgue / funeral parlor featured in D&P was a building that truly did exist on the corner of 109th and Jasper Ave; there are high-rise condos on that spot now, but at one time a bona-fide morgue stood there, changing hands many times over the years and at more than one point being a nightclub (which was once inventively called 'The Morgue'. Go figure). As a former resident you no doubt know of it!

  3. I love it when a story combines historical elements with fiction. To me it's the deep-thinking writer who finds a thread of authentic local connection and lets it grow. We run with things, inspired by some small detail we overhear or see, and soon it's an obsessive story that needs paper.

    Well done you. Now I will have to read 'Divinity and the Python'.

    Nice meeting you too. I will look for you on Goodreads (I'm still trying to navigate my way in there... OMG -it's like being in Ikea)

  4. And how would a character feel living in those apartments on the morgue site? No doubt the soul of the earlier building would float up the elevator shafts and through the heating ducts of the new building, all the way to the roof.

    Good luck being the person in charge of maintenance.

    1. What *would* that be like - living over hallowed ground like that.
      In D&P the morgue is a full-blown character - I liked the idea of turning how we'd normally feel about a place on its head and rendering it into the opposite, and as such Divinity is a place where the dead were "cared for, respected, and given their dignity back". It is a place that's fearsomely protective of who it loves as a result. I hope you enjoy it!

    2. Nice and unexpected. Great twist.

  5. Bonnie, this was a great post and one to save. Next time I want to put a cliche in my character's mouth I'll go back and review your suggestions. I never would have thought of making them more extreme. Very helpful. Thanks!

    1. Hi Carol!
      Glad you found this helpful. Taken to the extreme I think a lot of colloquialisms could wind up hilarious - or incredibly deep. It's a fun exercise, no question

  6. I'm ambivalent about this. I recall the admonition to "kill your darlings." Unless you put these riffs in the mind or mouth of a particularly quirky and amusing character, I think the distraction of the reader who stops to admire the cleverness might be more detrimental than helpful to the work itself. Unless your writing is prized more for its cleverness than for its emotional impact. Kind of like a cold shower.

    1. Not every technique or suggestion will work or resonate with every project or writer, absolutely true.

  7. I've been giving cliches (and idioms) a lot of thought, for my Sci fi series. We all use them as shorthand, and it feels forced not to have any at all, but these people aren't speaking English and they're not from Earth so I can't reference earth animals or well, anything. This is a great technique for giving them a revamp without breaking my readers' brains. Thanks!