Guest Post: Margie’s Rule #9: Cliché Play by Margie Lawson


Thank you to Writers in the Storm and to the incomparable writing coach Margie Lawson for this wonderful article on how to eliminate tired and meaningless phrases from your writing.


Most writers know to avoid clichés. Every basic how-to book for writers includes a section on avoiding clichés. Those experts refer to clichés as lazy writing.

So do I.

Clichés represent weak writing. They’re easy to throw on the page. No thinking required.

Clichés don’t share the specificity and emotion as the phrase or sentence you could write.

No power words. No power.

What are power words? In my world, power words are the words that carry psychological power.

What’s wrong with using clichés?

  1. They’re predictable.
  2. They’re annoying.
  3. They invite the reader to skim, and tune-out.
  4. They don’t add specificity.
  5. They don’t deepen characterization or draw the reader deeper into the scene.

There are times when using clichés or cliché twists works well.

  1. When they are so rich, so perfect, they make you smile.
  2. When they are so twisted, they make you laugh.

Dennis Lehane, Moonlight Mile

Dennis Lehane uses two clichés in the passage below from Moonlight Mile. The one in the last line works well. It’s a perfect fit.

Set Up:  The POV character is angry with Helene, the scuzzy mother of the teenage girl who is missing. Here’s how he characterized Helene earlier: “If it smelled of stupid, Helene just had to be somewhere nearby.”

After the silence went on a bit too long, Helene said, “What’re you thinking?”

“I’m thinking how I’ve never had the impulse to hit a woman in my life, but you get me in an Ike Turner frame of mind.”

She flicked her cigarette into the parking lot. “Like I haven’t heard that before.”

“Where. Is. She.”

“We. Don’t. Know.” Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old, which, in terms of emotional development, wasn’t far off the mark.

I’m sharing my deep editing analysis of that passage for fun, and to share the learning opportunities. After my analysis, you’ll find more examples of cliché twists. Enjoy!

Deep Editing Analysis:

Cadence – Read it out loud. You’ll hear the cadence driving the reader through every sentence. No stalling.

Allusion – Rhetorical Device – the reference to his Ike Turner frame of mind.


  1. Like I haven’t heard that before.

In this scene, that overused line carried power, strengthened characterization, and made me laugh. I approve using this cliché here.

  1. . . . wasn’t far off the mark.

It works. It’s tight. I like the cadence. And I can’t think of a better way to end that sentence.

Period. Infused. Sentences. My way of describing when the author morphs what would have been a normal sentence into sequential single word sentences. Like. This.

“Where. Is. She.”

Lehane shared what I call a Dialogue Cue. He didn’t add a sentence describing how the words were delivered. He showed it structurally. The punctuation indicates that each word is clipped, and that the character speaking is big-time irritated.

He also did something I haven’t seen on the page before, but I’ve heard it in real life. He had one character speak in that clipped style, and had another character respond the same way.

“Where. Is. She.”

“We. Don’t. Know.”

The reader knows the second character is mocking the first. But Lehane doesn’t TELL us. He SHOWS us. Smart. And smart alecky too.  🙂

Facial Expression, Amplified:

Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old, which, in terms of emotional development, wasn’t far off the mark.

Lehane could have stopped with:  Helene bulged her eyes at me.

Lehane could have stopped with: Helene bulged her eyes at me like a twelve-year-old.

Lehane could have stopped with: Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old.

Ah! Adding the word, pissy, adds psychological power. It taps a universal emotion in readers.

Most adults have dealt with a pissy twelve-year-old, a child, niece, nephew, neighbor. Adding pissy elicits an internal nod. It ratchets up the tension and tightens the emotional hook.

But Lehane didn’t stop with that strong sentence. He amplified the line and empowered the emotion. Here’s his sentence again:

Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old, which, in terms of emotional development, wasn’t far off the mark.

Back to Clichés!

Writers often write body language, dialogue cues, and visceral responses in clichéd ways.

  • She arched an eyebrow.
  • His face was as red as a beet.
  • She had butterflies in her stomach.
  • Her legs turned to jelly.

Avoid them. Write fresh.

Clichés are sneaky devils. You may not catch them until a 7th or 11th or 27th read-through. Or you may not catch them at all.

According to Donald Maass, clichés sprout up everywhere. Donald Maass has a sensitive cliché-meter. So do other agents.

Some people are cliché blind. They don’t recognize them. Working with a critique group, critique partner, the clichéd phrases and sentences they miss may be caught.

REMEMBER — Compelling Cadence:

Every sentence should have a compelling cadence. Read these examples out loud. You’ll train your cadence ear.

Cliché Play from a few Immersion-grads:

Megan Menard, Pursued

Before:  It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

After:  It’s all fun and games until the river wins.

Before:  “I’m done with Little League, Ketterman. Time to knock this one out of the park.”

After:  “I’m done with Little League, Ketterman. Home runs can be caught. We’re going for the grand slam of escape. Set off the alarm and run all the way home.”

Before:  “Forget it. You’re slower than molasses.”

After:  “Forget it. You’re slower than dial up internet.”

Set Up: Seniors in the retirement home are playing poker.

Before:  …winner takes all

After:  Those scoundrels cheated and rigged the deck to beat Esther Scott’s full house with four of a kind, leaving her as the loser-takes-all new owner of Tank, the meanest cat in God’s creation.


Suzanne Purvis, Fused

Before:  My heart jackhammers.

After:  My jackhammering heart pounds get-down, get-down, get-down.

Before:  Matt throws another rock and barely misses Avis’s ear.

After:  Matt throws another rock and misses Avis’s ear by a flea’s foot.

Before: The last sentence was:  Each time, setting me up as his fall guy.

After:  He started the fire behind the Friendship Hall, the fire at the Chamber of Commerce, the fire at the library. Each time, setting me up as his fire guy.


Lori Freeland, The Accidental Boyfriend

  1. I’m selfie-conscious.
  2. This girl’s kick-boxing my ego’s ass.
  3. I didn’t sign on to be his bud-with-benefits.
  4. Tension’s strumming off me like a badly played guitar riff.
  5. I try not overthink the whole commando-thing while I’m putting on Gabe’s pants without Victoria to cover my secrets.


Click the comment link and say Hi. Or share one of your cliché twists.

About Andrea R Huelsenbeck

Andrea R Huelsenbeck is a wife, a mother of five and a former elementary general music teacher. A freelance writer in the 1990s, her nonfiction articles and book reviews appeared in Raising Arizona Kids, Christian Library Journal, and other publications. She is currently working on a young adult mystical fantasy novel and a mystery.

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