Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Dead Cliches

One of the most common shortcomings in some query letters (and in fiction by inexperienced writers) is an over-reliance on cliched phrases. The end result is a query that feels both unoriginal and strangely nonspecific, since in real life we use cliched phrases as a shorthand for bigger (and more interesting) ideas.

Here's what I mean. In query letters, I often see the description that a character "has issues." What does that mean, exactly? For instance, maybe the character has recurring nightmares about space monkeys. Now, in real life, we'd say someone "has issues" because we don't really want to get into the whole space monkey thing. But in a query, wouldn't it be more interesting to just say the character has recurring nightmares about space monkeys? (and hopefully space monkeys are relevant to the story if you're mentioning it... also I want to see that query)

I was thinking of compiling a list of all of these dead phrases over time and putting them up on the blog, but 1) I got lazy about it and 2) I realized that these phrases can be used to a good end by the right writer, particularly because cliches can be funny when they're used in a way that's counter intuitive. So a full list would probably be useless. BUT, if I had compiled a list, these would have been some of the entries:

"(something) ensued"
"in the worst way"
"to the bitter end"
"more than they bargained for"
"has issues"
"trials and tribulations"
"an incredible journey"
"he must (something) and (something) before (important object) falls into the wrong hands"

All of these phrases deaden a description that would have been far more interesting if the writer had just been specific about what they were describing.

So when you're writing your query, pay close, close attention to the writing crutches you're using to tell the story. The best way to write a succinct, compelling letter is to be specific and rid your query of cliches. To the bitter end.

Please add your favorite dead cliches in the comments section!


Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan:
Ever hear the story of Nate the Snake? Briefly, God created a lever to destroy the world after he created it, then he made Nate the Snake to defend the lever, and never let it be engaged.

After guarding the lever for centeries, Nate the Snake saw a big truck coming at the lever. He wiggled, he waggled, he squirmed, but all to no avail. The truck came dead-on. So, Nate threw himself in front of the lever, and his whip slender body deflected the truck so that he barely missed the lever.

Know what the morale of this story is?


Just couldn't pass this up in light of your name. Love your blog, even if you've denied my charming, wonderous and all-consuming queries.

Sleepy Writer Ada said...

Alice is in over her head...she has serious problems. Too many people are after her in all directions and she doesn't know who to turn to first.

She has serious home issues that nobody in the household is willing to deal with.

If that wasn't enough she's gotten more then she bargained for when the guy she thought was true to her, cheated on her with another person.

Join in her journey of discovery and love, as she gets through tears and laughter first.

Who should she run to? Who can help her?
What do you think Nathan? Are you interested enough to request a partial from me?

I think people do it to create such interest in prospective agents that they are itching to request the they leave you agents hanging. Their dangling a piece of meat in front of a Great Dane.

cyn said...

could not come at a better time. thanks, nathan. /opens query letter doc.

Mark Terry said...

Except, of course, in our blurbs, where we really want our work to be "high-octane, edge-of-our-seat thrill fests that you can't put down!"

Here's a bit from a novel I just finished writing:

BB smiled. “And let’s say McGarrity had been playing the dirty boogie with an old girlfriend of his from law school who was working there, too.”
“Dirty boogie?”
“Horizontal bop.”
I studied BB. “Getting his ashes hauled?”
“Hide the salami,” BB said.
I cocked my head. “The Mattress Mambo.”
“Jump her bones.”
“Anyway…” I took a deep breath and shook my head. “Right. He and the lovely Lily were … getting it on and..."

Kim Lionetti said...

Hi Nathan:

This is a list that could consume hours and hours of my day....

"a stunning revelation"
"checkered past"
"explosive ending"

Thanks for the distraction!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

...on top of everything, to complicate matters...

It's a story about life, love, and redemption... (I just saw this in a cover letter to a story to the zine.)

Oh, and the omnipresent: Meanwhile, back at the ranch...(in all its variations)

Jael said...

Having seen a bunch of pitch critiques and query critiques now on different agent blogs, my #1 dead query cliche is the character having his/her "life turned upside down."

It's got that maddening vagueness to it, and if your pitch is written right you don't need it, because the reader will say, "Oh, wow! That event will totally turn his/her life upside down!"

Sam Hranac said...

So-n-so was [blank] as a dog.

Drunk (also applies to skunks)

When did we get the idea that people know so much about how dogs feel or do things? Also, note the negative stereotype.

This shouldn't happen to a dog.

Steph said...

Hmm, who would've thought that bad pick up lines present themselves even in the publishing industry. :)

- Steph

Heidi the Hick said...

Oh! I did that! The "More than they bargained for cliche!!!!

I have issues, by the way, not with space monkeys but with sea monkeys. Yeesh.

Don't forget having your world torn apart. That happens too.

John said...

Dear Mr./Mrs. Agent,

John Q. Protagonist has issues. He wants to be normal in the worst way, but every time he goes to bed, he has recurring nightmares about space monkeys.

John Q. Suffers various trials and tribulations, but when he tells his parole officer about the space-monkey nightmares, his parole officer tells him he is the Chosen One, meant to keep The Secret safe, and deliver The Secret to The Government Committee, before the The Secret falls into the wrong hands (a.k.a. The Cabal).

An incredible journey ensues, forcing John Q to be sharp as a tack, swim with the sharks, and literally bend over backwards. On top of everything, The Secret turns his world upside down--but he's determined to see the project through to the bitter end.

Finally, there's a stunning revelation about John Q.'s checkered past leads to an explosive ending that was more than they bargained for.

I DREAM OF SPACE MONKEYS, complete at 166 words, is a story about life, love, and redemption.

wolf said...

Bernard Sinclair has a problem. He doesn’t really believe he has a problem, but were he to pull his head (and the rest of his torso) out of his mug of Sardonnian space ale, he might see that his interstellar shipping company is about to go bankrupt. His unfortunate habit of dumping contraband at the first sign of trouble, not to mention his other unfortunate habit of giving free services to anything in a skirt, has made his bottom line sink faster than the attendance at a Cher 200th anniversary farewell concert. He has recurring nightmares about the space monkey that ran away with his mother, and the athlete’s foot virus in his space suit is talking to him.

His latest cargo, however, is causing more of a headache than his ale usually does. The crate of seventeen space monkeys from Galaxis 6 that is scheduled to be delivered to a laboratory has broken open in the cargo hold, and the monkeys are freely roaming the ship, escaping all attempts to catch them. Meanwhile, his last romantic conquest is convinced that he’s the father of her seven-tentacled son, and the butler threw the last of his Earl Grey out of the airlock.

Bernard isn’t too concerned at first. If he can catch the monkeys and deliver them safely to Asceticon 2, the pay will be more than enough to save his company and cover tentacle/child support for the next seventeen solars. But when his mother reappears after twenty two years with a tail and a new family, Bernard is going to have to figure out where his alliances really lie.

Anonymous said...

" and learns a little something along the way..."

"has to put the pieces back together"

"______ has it all. And then..."

"It all comes crashing down"

Josephine Damian said...

Nathan, I read in a Donald Maass writing advice book that if he opened one more query and saw a mystery/thriller slueth described as being "haunted by demons from his past," he would basically puke.

I'm just glad I read that before I mailed out my query that describes my sleuth as, well, you know... :-)

Karen Duvall said...

Cliches in queries are one thing, but what about cliches in the actual book? A few minutes before reading your blog, Nathan, I was working on revisions to my manuscript and trying to think of a new way to say the same old thing. How many times have we heard about people getting sick and "worshiping the porcelain god/goddess/idol." If we put our thinking caps on (ha! cliche alert!) we can always put a new spin on a tired old cliche. I came up with: kneeling before the commode of a hundred hurls.

Cindy Thomson said...

My vote:
"...came to realize."

Fairfield County Wife - oops! said...

My Sea Monkeys never juggled. And the babies did not smile. And their little crowns fell off. I have issues.

I'm fed up with the "gave up her career for motherhood" cliche. The whole moved from the city to CT angst where life is so idyllic yet unfulfilling she must solve numerous murders on the cul de sac while her husband toils in the financial world and arrives home late on the Metro North to Darien.

Brian said...

I know this is supposed to be about helping burgeoning writers craft a strong query but may I also suggest that this particular sphere of influence be extended to the marketing and publicity arms of the publishers themselves?

"Where'd you learn to write cliches like that?"

"You, OK? I learned it by watching you!"

I think unless we're willing to implement a blanket moratorium within the publishing industry, writers are going to continue to see these phrases on the backs of books and assume that's how you do it.

Matt Groening does an annual Forbidden Words segment of his "Life in Hell" comic. Maybe we need one of those for all writers, whether firmly entrenched in the publishing world or trying to break in.

Nathan Bransford said...


Amen to that.

Anonymous said...

A tale of forbidden love!
A tale of impossible love overcoming many obstacles!
Forces keeping them from their destiny!
Can [exotic name] do [X] before [Y] happens and all is lost?
Forced to choose between [X] and [Y] ...

Michelle Pendergrass said...

I'm tired of seeing that the character's:



has been "shaken to the core"


ORION said...

How about:
"This is a guaranteed best seller..."

Andrew said...

For some reason I am endlessly amused by the abuse of "literally." It's the kind of humor that probably doesn't work in a query letter, but it makes me laugh. My favorite Futurama line: "I am literally angry with rage!"

cynjay said...

Anyone who finds out that they are, in fact, the "chosen one". Yeesh.

Double yeesh if they have to go through a portal to do it.

Polenth said...

I've always liked "[person] must [finish task] before it's too late!"

Too late for the yearly village cake baking competition? We'll never know.

Some do remember to mention that "Everything [he/she] has is [at stake/in danger/at risk]!"

That's what you get for betting all your savings on your aunt getting first place. Her cranberry muffins aren't that great.

A Paperback Writer said...

"Dead" cliches? As opposed to "live" cliches? But perhaps a live cliche is a bit of an oxymoron....

Christopher M. Park said...

This is good stuff!

Curiously, just earlier today I released a new version of my Manuscript Analyzer tool. It's a little (free) program I wrote for finding gaffes like these, as well as overuse non-cliche words/phrases. I've added a lot of the ideas presented here to the phrases dictionary in the tool, since this has been such a good list of them.


Anonymous said...

Well, I'm pretty techno ignorant, so I don't know if this blog will make it to you, but here goes. I recently queried you Nathan, and I had a common cliche in the beginning. I had hesitated to take it out, sensing it wasn't working, that sounded so...clicheish. But I left it in. Should have taken it out. You might have requested a partial if I had! LOL

Anyways...being stuck between a rock and a hard place has nothing on the troubles faced by the main characters of...

You get the point.

Ah Ha! Another cliche! Touche!


Justin said...

What Brian said. It's irritating how often I'll see cliches rear their overused heads on the back of a published book. Handy though, because I know immediately to not waste my time with said book. It's sort of like a warning label telling me that this book is hazardous to my literary health. Maybe it's not all bad.

moonrat said...

you know what's even worse? cliches in JACKET COPY. you can't even blame naive authors for that. it's not their fault their "vivid, luminous prose" is so "exuberant" or that their plot is so "gripping" and "enthralling."

asif din said...

Hmmm ... note to self: Check for cliches hidden in query letters.

Thanks for the tip!

And suddenly I'm really keen on writing a romantic-comedy that has space monkeys somehow factored in ...

Of course, that would entail being both romantic and comedic so that will not be happening. So instead, I may have to start working on a post-apocalyptic story with space monkeys as mankind's only hope (ooo! There's one of those damnable cliches!).

Emily said...

Ooh, ooh! I totally want to join in. Cliches are great fun.

-"Little did they know..."
-"Life turned upside down"
-"A dangerous race to save _____"
-"Haunted by his/her past"
-"On the brink of disaster"
-"More than meets the eye"
-"Forbidden love"
-"Forbidden love with vampires"
-"First saw the light of day"

Have a great (and cliche-free) day!

Sean Lindsay said...

Nathan, the mother of all cliche lists is Morgan Friedman's Cliche Finder, which has over three thousand of them. You can't hope to compete, and you wouldn't really want to.

Two questions: How long after you make a quip like the 'space monkeys' thing do you start getting queries referencing it? And how long until it stops?

Anonymous said...

Karen Duvall wrote:
"How many times have we heard about people getting sick and 'worshiping the porcelain god/goddess/idol.'"

When I'm stuck like that I usually try to exaggerate, if it works - "...she didn't even care if it splashed back and caked in her hair, or even if it splattered in her face."

otherkatie said...


What's your opinion on the phrase "coming of age"?

Julie Weathers said...

"Anyone who finds out that they are, in fact, the "chosen one". Yeesh.

Double yeesh if they have to go through a portal to do it."

Well, fudge. Double fudge. There goes Paladin's Pride.

Actually, I think it depends on how it's done. Passion of the Christ is a story about the chosen one. Not trying to get into a religious debate, just the first thing that came to mind as I am trying to hie off to work.

My story is about "the chosen one" and it does involve portals, but I think it's done in an interesting way.

I guess we'll see.

Erik said...

Dead cliches are the new black.

Jason Cook said...

I'd echo Brian's comments in defense of (some of) the cliche queries going out. When you look up good examples in any book or across the internet you often see these back cover cliches. Heck, the 2008 Writers Market uses the comment next to one that, "this looks like something we normally put on the back cover."

It's a real tricky game to play, trying to truncate your story down to a paragraph or two (often less) while trying to appear industry-savvy and make it sound "marketable" to your prospect.

Morgan Dempsey said...

All I wonder is: how many people know what 'tribulation' actually means?

Heidi the Hick said...

Oooooh I can't believe I forgot this one...


Are we taking cliches to the Next Level here?


And while we're going all reality show about it...we do not "have a connection" and I am not "feeling it."

mwa hahaha

Gabriele C. said...

Fighting one's inner demons.

I'm always tempted to send them some real ones. But maybe space monkeys would work even better. :)

Anonymous said...

Here's one...

"I'm afraid in the end I didn't find myself investing
in the narrative as I would have liked and I'm just not confident enough that I could make this stand out in such a competitive marketplace."

Ha. That was from you after reading my manuscript! Turn about is fair play :)

No hard feelings. And to be fair, I did a pretty major rewrite since you saw it. Anyway, I found an agent (actually two, but picked one) and hope to have a publishing deal signed by the end of the month.

I love your blog and am somewhat of a collector of cliches. In fact, I was in a band in college called the Cliches.

Take care.

CarBeyond said...

Dead chickens???

I don't see any dead chickens!

Mary Witzl said...

This is a bit late, but it's been driving me wild for quite some time: 'awesome' and 'amazing' used simply to describe people who do a good job or otherwise inspire one's admiration.

If I saw someone walk on water, my awe would be inspired and I would find this awesome. If anyone ever negotiates a peace settlement in the Middle East, I will be amazed. Otherwise, please spare me these two words.

And I'm getting pretty tired of 24-7 too, come to think of it...

Sisyphus said...

Hi Nathan,

Who am I to criticize clichés? Do I want to come across as playing God? Of course not. I much rather stay away from such a slippery slope. You can laugh about clichés all you want but, at the day of the day, you have to admit it's not always easy to write with originality. Sure, it's better to push the envelope into the virgin terrain of new metaphors. But do you realize that pushing the envelope can be hard and unrewarding work? I challenge you to push an envelope for an entire day and doing so without leaving a stone unturned! I can hear you say already, "Little did I know how hard it is to push the envelope! I was exhausted before I knew it!" Then you would find out that to think outside the box could boggle the mind. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, it’s easier to stick with clichés in the foreseeable future instead of turning them into a bone of contention.

PS. Love your blog, Nathan!

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