Wednesday, 18 November 2009


Cliché is a virus. It seeps into our lives like a plague and fits us like a glove.

Although we might spend weeks perfecting the most cliché-free paragraph ever imagined, at some point the hellhound of hackery will come barking at our door, munching apart our precious manuscripts like a rather rabid creature with teeth that hurt.

I have heard numerous cliché-avoidance theories over the years, many of them wise, many of them unwise. So, assuming I understand SOMETHING about the process of writing at this stage (I hope, I hope), the following are a series of ideas for evading the dreaded Beasts of the Banal.


1. The rain beat hard against the windows.

No no no! This phrase should be kidnapped, knifed and dumped in a dustbin. Rain neither lashes nor beats against windows. The force of the wind propelling the raindrops might create a lashing or beating effect, but this is irrelevant – it’s still a fusty way to create eeriness.

If heavy rain must be deployed, think about other sounds it makes outside a house. What the rain collides with, for example (though be careful to avoid tin roofs and the like). Better still, why not invert the description? Instead of the rain hitting the window, have the window being sieged by the rain. Inversion is a caring sharing tool. However, rain is a cliché hotspot, esp. in horror.

Learn from gothic windbag Henry James. Centre the action around the suggestion of fear. Use deceiving images or misleading sounds to create basic paranoia and suspense, or keep the action character-centred. For me, real tension resides within the relationship between what a character fears the most and the unpredictability of their surroundings.

2. A blanket of snow lay upon the ground.

Snow might look snug and cosy, but it’s not. It’s bloody freezing without four jackets and thermal gloves. This blanket image is misleading. No one wants to climb into bed and get frostbite. Why not expose snow for the menace it is? We have to extricate our cars from its slush-web, grit our paths and roads all winter, avoid being snowballed by teenage punks, etc.

Why not: An invasion of snow? A persecution of snow? A molestation of snow? An endless white diaspora of frostbite and hassle… of snow?

If the snow must be described favourably, then ignore snow’s cutesy images: penguins, tundra, Christmas. Concentrate on that bizarre human fixation with below-zero conditions, on plunging our hands into crystals of ice and getting colds that last three years, on taking six weeks to get dressed to go outside. We love it, but why? Why, oh why? Avoid referring to how it perches on trees, roofs, cars or the bobble hats of beautiful winter bints.

3. The sun broke through the trees.

There are an infinite number of sun-based clichés, but this one irritates me the most. Why must the sun always break through trees, stream in through windows, or appear on the horizon? The above expression is a nuisance, since it implies a newness about the sun’s appearance, rendering it significant when it is obviously not. The sun is endless. The sun never goes away. Of course it's going to appear from behind some bloody trees.

Why must it always break through trees? Why can’t it break from behind the head of a bald man sitting on a park bench getting rat-arsed? Or, as it does in the city, from behind horrible corporate buildings that keep you locked indoors all day away from the sun? The tree image creates an artificial beauty, when the reality of the sun is this: heat, sweat, exhaustion, irritation, sunburn, cancer.

Like snow, the sun has been misrepresented in fiction. The sun is evil. Consider such phrases as: The sun crept up from behind the trees. The sun ogled through the clouds. The sun prepared its blistering luminosity for another day’s torment of the populace. And so on. My suggestion is to capture that menacing dimension to the sun. It is deceitful in fiction to create the illusion of a benign weather condition and ask readers to ignore the skin cancer/death threat.

4. The wind howled all night long.

Only under very extraordinary circumstances can the wind howl. It makes whooshing and whirling noises to various degrees of extremity. It does not have the ability to do wolf impersonations.

The wind is a difficult weather condition to describe, since the whooshing noises vary in their tone and pitch, and we need words other than ‘whoosh’ to describe the function it performs (blowing things about). Personally, since I find the wind such a banal weather condition, I choose to ignore it unless I need something to auto-happen in a scene. The wind is a good back-up ‘happening’ if nothing else is going on.

E.g. She stood stock still. A man walked past. Umm… umm… umm… a breeze blew around her legs.

Also, remember that breezes ordinarily affect the whole body, but it might feel the strongest around a certain area. I would reserve wind for back-up circumstances only. If you’re writing a twister novel, you might wish to ignore that last piece of priceless advice.

I must retire now. The windows are weeping droplets, the wind is making things wobble, the sun is violating my precious skin, and the snow is freezing my bloody feet off.


  1. Thanks, Mark. Funny, funny. Good advice.

  2. As usual, good points made and yes - FUNNY! Such a joy to read your posts!

  3. Um, hurrah!

    Feel free to share your own cliché horrors on these forthcoming blog installments, so I know I'm not going mad.

  4. I know this post was made over three years ago now, but I just want to say that your writing is a delight to read. I admire your style.