Sunday, 3 February 2019

Avoid cliches like the plague - or maybe not - by Fran Hill

Avoid clichés like the plague, they say.

But, actually, better advice is not to avoid them but to jazz them up. Your reader gets a real kick out of recognising a cliché, but seeing it used in an original way, with a twist.

Your first task - Here's a list of clichés with the ends missing. You can tell they're clichés, because, for the majority of them, you should be able to complete them with ease. That's because they've been used a trillion zillion times before. There'll be variants with one or two, but generally, these have predictable endings.

As high as ...
As soft as
As quick as
As strong as
As sick as
As mad as
As bald as
As clear as
As bright as
As dry as
As green as
As fresh as
As sober as
As white as
As thick as

Now, here are some examples of clichés given a twist:

  • He walked into the room, as cool as an iced martini.
  • He was popular with the girls: as cool as Usain Bolt on the starting blocks. 
  • The primary children were so excited about the visit and as high as Mumbai skyscrapers. 
  • She had a grating voice, as high as a British Gas bill. 
  • His explanation was as clear as a drunk's head on a Sunday morning. 
  • The sky was as clear as a newly-swept floor. 

Your turn: See if you can find alternative endings to all the incomplete clichés above and, when you have, write a few sentences of description containing your favourites.

Here's one I've written as an example:

It was a low, keening sound, like a child crying, or a ghost, eager to enter a room or a basement and haunt. There it was, again. Her heart drumming against her chest, her complexion turned as white as winter.

Further tips:

Using well-known references and proper names (such as Usain Bolt or British Gas) gives an instant spark of recognition to the reader. But target them carefully: using 'As bald as Kojak' will only work for an audience of a certain age. Generally, my age. Thank goodness for Duncan Goodhew.

You can play with clichés for ironic effect. The penultimate one in my list - 'His explanation was as clear as a drunk's head on a Sunday morning' is an example. The usual cliché - 'That was as clear as mud' - is also ironic. What about, 'The drugs hadn't worked. He was only as high as Norfolk.'?

When you're trying to think of similes, which is what these particular clichés are, the key is to think, 'What else is really dry? What else is really bright? What else is really quick?' For example, the desert is really dry. So, how about, 'His humour was as dry as the Sahara?' So is stale bread really dry, which could lead to 'His humour was as dry as stale Hovis' or 'As dry as Hovis past its sell-by'.

Exaggeration is a key technique. For instance, instead of, 'As strong as an ox', I could use, 'As strong as an ox on steroids'.

Sound effects, such as alliteration (repeated consonant sounds) or assonance (repeated vowel sounds) add further effect. That's why 'As cool as a cucumber' has worked for so long. But it's a cliché. How about, 'As cool as Bublé?' That uses assonance with its 'oo' sounds.

Context is all. You won't use 'As dry as an alcoholic's cellar' if you're not looking for comic effect. On the other hand, 'As quiet as a Victorian graveyard' would work well in a Gothic-type story.

Reclaim the cliché, I say!

She was as quiet as a shy mouse. 

Fran Hill is a writer and English teacher from Warwickshire, England. Her new book 'Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?' is a memoir of a year in her teaching life, and is being published by SPCK in 2020. You can find out more about Fran and her work from her website right here


  1. Great post, Fran. One of my favourites on this was to have my character comment someone else was "taking the Garibaldi". Nice thing with that is you can change things to reflect background too. "Taking the Lidl Rich Tea" has a different connotation to someone "taking the Marks and Sparks chocolate digestives"! There is a great deal of fun to be had here.

    1. I totally agree, Allison. You can imply so much with just a little tweak!

  2. Brilliant post. And I absolutely love the sky 'as clear as a newly swept floor' . You are so clever to have thought of all these x

    1. No cleverer than you, Mrs Description Queen. xx

  3. Yes, love it, I'll have a go!

    1. Great, Tish! Post the results in the comments :)