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How do You Avoid Using Clichés in Your Fiction? Shoot for Aphorisms


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Skip the Clichés - Be Original

Clichés may be a great way to get something across to someone in person efficiently, but in writing they stick out like giant sore thumbs. As a fiction writer, clichés are something I avoid like the plague (see what I did there). In nonfiction blog posts, I can probably get away with a cliché or two. Not so in fiction. But there are ways to avoid clichés while getting your point across—it just takes a little creativity. And creativity, as a writer, is critical to the craft.

In writing, you want to be original. I know that’s difficult—we all have to deal with coming up with original plots (there are none), original style (still possible, but pretty difficult to achieve), original dialogue (sure), original settings (probably not), and a million other elements of fiction that we work on while writing our novels and novellas and short stories. Clichés kill your originality. They’re a shortcut with bright, blinking lights around them that detract from what you’re trying to achieve through your narrative. But they’re also a fantastic opportunity for you to differentiate yourself from the fiction of other authors, because clichés give you a chance to reimagine the intent behind them. They allow you to rewrite the meaning of the cliché in your own way, to create your own aphorism.


Now, I’m not saying it’s easy—it’s not. But there’s nothing quite as cool as coming up with your own aphorism (i.e., a cliché you take apart, reimagine, and make your own). Woodhead Publishing says, an “[a]phorism is a short statement expressing general truths or opinions. Aphorisms are often applied to matters of philosophical, moral, and literary principles, usually using metaphors and other creative imagery.”


Aphorisms stick out, but they stick out in a positive way, when done right. Readers remember aphorisms like they remember clichés, but they just come off as more interesting and intellectual. According to Socratic.org, “Aphorisms are straightforward maxims, [whereas] clichés are often overused events that become predictable.” They’re hard to tell apart, but with a little practice the experienced writer begins to mold that clay a little more quickly and knowledgably to, ideally, drop them into their own fiction.


According to YourDictionary.com, “[a]phorisms are a lot like proverbs. Here's the core difference: aphorism comes from the Greek word aphorismos which literally means "definition." For a statement to truly be an aphorism, it needs to be concise (like a definition) as well as memorable. . . . [a]n aphorism, however, tends to be more literal, as any definition should be.” Make sense?


Here’s an aphorism by Albert Einstein: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb trees, it will spend its whole life thinking that it is stupid.” His point is made (that one cannot be judged based on some skill that’s not intrinsic to that person or thing, in this case a fish), and he makes it without sounding cliché.


Here’s a few famous aphorisms by famous people:

  • “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” – George Bernard Shaw

  • “Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” – Mark Twain

  • “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” – Socrates

  • “Life without love is like a tree without blossoms or fruit.” – Khalil Gibran

  • “True friends stab you in the front.” – Oscar Wilde

  • “A friend to all is a friend to none.” – Aristotle

  • “Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

– George Bernard Shaw


And here’s a list of clichés you should avoid:

  • “All that glitters isn’t gold”

  • “It is what it is.”

  • “Time will tell.”

  • “There’s bad blood.”

  • “Time flies.”

  • “All is fair in love and war.”

  • “Without a care in the world.”

  • “She’s sharp as a tack.”

  • “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

  • “We’re not laughing at you; we’re laughing with you.”

  • “A wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

  • “She was saved by the bell.”

  • “As dead as a nail.”

  • “Laughter is the best medicine.”

  • “Don’t read between the lines.”

  • “He’s the lesser of two evils.”

  • “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

  • “A blast from the past.”

  • “He’s rough around the edges.”

  • “She was dressed to kill.”

  • “Haste makes waste.”

  • “It’s written on the walls.”

  • “She’s a diamond in the rough.”

  • “It makes my blood boil.”

  • “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

  • “He was a loose canon.”

  • “Live and let live.”

  • “If only these walls could talk.”

  • “He’s behind the times.”

  • “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

  • “At the speed of light.”

  • “Don’t cry over spilled milk.”

  • “She’s got a bun in the oven.”

  • “He made it in the nick of time.”

  • “Time heals all wounds.”

  • “Gut wrenching.”

  • “Like a kid in a candy store.”

  • “He’s a fair-weather friend.”

  • “To keep something at bay.”

  • “The guy’s a bad apple.”

  • “He’s like a broken record.”

  • “The grass is always greener on the other side.”

  • “Every rose has its thorn.”

  • “She won’t play ball.”

  • “What goes around comes around.”

  • “Just think outside the box.”

  • “He opened up a can of worms.”

  • “Ignorance is bliss.”

  • “The pot calling the kettle black.”

  • “Grab the tiger by the tail.”

  • “Beating a dead horse.”

  • “He woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”

  • “Good things come to those who wait.”

  • “It’s icing on the cake.”

  • “There are plenty of fish in the sea.”

  • “It was a perfect storm.”

  • “Justice is blind.”


Now, we’ve all heard these clichés a million times. If you’re a writer, you sort of shrug your shoulders and keep on reading, hoping the piece you’re reading doesn’t rely too heavily on them going forward. But if you see another one, it can be a scratch on a chalkboard. I know it is for me, but unfortunately, I get why writers use them. In serious fiction, I, personally, find it near unforgivable. Call me elitist if you will (I am, after all, a writer of literary fiction, so I get it), but that’s just me. I love aphorisms; I hate clichés. But it’s tough, coming up with one of your own.


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Think Creatively When Inventing Aphorisms

Clichés, aphorisms, fiction


So, how do you turn a cliché into an aphorism? For me, it’s like trying to figure out a word puzzle. First, I break down what the cliché’s ultimate meaning is trying to achieve. So, for example, “Good things come to those who wait” just means one will benefit from having patience (I almost wrote “patience is a virtue,” which would have been another cliché).

To make that an original aphorism is the goal. Aeschylus’s “Time brings all things to pass,” is similar, but not exactly quite right. What about “April showers bring may flowers?” Again, close, but not so much. I find Ree Villaruel’s “Maybe the right kind of waiting means moving with the world till you sync with it and win it over,” a little more in line intent-wise with what “Good things come to those who wait” means, but it is by no means a perfect one-to-one example.


“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb trees, it will spend its whole life thinking that it is stupid.”
- Albert Einstein

Anyway, you get the point. Your job as a writer, when and if you’re interested in inserting aphorisms into your works and avoiding the dreaded clichés that plague so much of literature, is to find the mundane and enrich it through your creativity. Readers remember aphorisms because they are smart. They remember them because they state a universal truth that makes sense. They make readers think, they get the cogs in the brain turning, and they provide readers with inspiration, knowledge delivered via a new and different perspective, and an understanding of the world you’ve dropped them into by the language you’ve chosen for them to experience in your fiction. And besides all that, they’re just fun to read.


Cully Perlman is a novelist, short story writer, blogger, and a Developmental/Substantive Editor. If you’re ready to have someone edit your novel or long fiction, you can reach him at Support@novelmasterclass.com

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