Friday, February 3, 2012

Clichés and anatomical impossibilities

How many times have you read the line ‘her jaw dropped to the floor’, or ‘my stomach sank’ or ‘her eyes were as blue as the ocean’? A fair few? More?

Yea, me too. It’s gotten to the point where I do an involuntary eye-roll when I read one of those lines. According to a quick Google search only 1 in 6 people (in America) have blue eyes. Even that statistic sounds a bit high to me. I very rarely notice people with blue eyes. Not the Alexis Bledel kind anyway.

Is the character a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian? Ok, forgiven. Dark-haired, olive-skinned, blue-eyed beauty? Why? Is it because she lives in a dystopian world where a certain type of blue eyes mean she has a genetic abnormality brought on by genetic experiments? Ok, I can dig that.

Is it … just ‘cause? If you chose option C, cue eye-roll. She’s much more likely to have brown eyes. Or hazel. And what’s wrong with those colours? And for the record, green eyes are even less likely. Only 1-2% of people (according to that same Google search) have ‘eyes the colour of jade’.

If you’re aware of the improbability of your character having blue eyes, green (grey, violet, red) eyes, and you decide they still need to have that eye colour (I hope it’s for a good reason and not just ‘cause) then please, please come up with a way to describe them other than ‘sea green/blue’ or ‘eyes like sparkling sapphires/jade’. The first word to pop into your head is probably there because you’ve the descriptions a million times before. Put it away, and try for another.

Those eyes, so blue I felt as though I were staring into a fathomless pool, so deep and wide that I could swim forever.

So now we’ve got the eyes sorted, I would just like to point out that it is not actually possible for a jaw to drop much further than, well, anywhere past your face. Once upon a time, I’m sure the image of someone’s jaw dropping to the floor was new and fresh (but so were all clichés) and told the reader perfectly how stunned the character was. (Or it was a perfectly gruesome description of a decaying zombie.) Now, not so much.

Is your character’s jaw dropping to the floor because they’re stunned by something they’ve seen or heard? How else would they be affected? Would a jolt run through them from the surprise? Would their breathing speed up? Goosebumps? Eyes widening? Shaking? Muscles tensing?

There are so many different physical and emotional responses to any situation your character might face, and there is never any need to use a clichéd line. The thesaurus is your friend (much like Google). If you’re feeling stuck, maybe try to imagining yourself in your characters shoes. How would you feel?

How ‘bout you? Does clichéd writing grind your gears? What are your tips for avoiding overdone wording?


  1. I think the biggest thing I've come across that makes me cringe is when people describe eyes as "orbs". There are other things I read that bug me, but then there are others that don't bother me at all and that I actually like. I'm sure it's something that's so subjective. (I do like my thesaurus!!)

    1. Oh yes, orbs. I've been guily of that before. I think first (and often second) drafts are going to be littered with these sorts of lines. It's a matter of going through in revisions and going, 'waaait a second, I've seen you a few too many times before!'

  2. No, they don't bother me, unless they are used in abundance as a crutch. And I have a strong suspicion that it's really only writers and people who think about writing critically that have a problem with them. The vast majority of readers don't care.

    But to be honest with you, I think saying "her jaw dropped to the floor" is silly because it's not literally true is a little petty. Of course it's not literally true. It was never meant to be taken literally. We create such expressions because they are ways of describing a feeling/action that are easy for practically everyone to understand. I can see the action behind "her jaw dropped to the floor" in my head even as I read it. Such expressions are very useful.

    And I can't say I've heard eyes described as blue as the ocean very often. But the idea of getting lost in someone's eyes is very cliche.

    1. Hi Sarah, I do agree with you to a certain extent. I am feeling particularly anti-cliches at the moment, after reading a MS packeed full of them, hence the post.

      And you're right about the issue with 'her jaw dropped to floor'. It's not so much the fact that it can't happen that irritates me, but just how overdone it is.

      I'm ok with people using lines to show an extreme reaction, even if it's not possible, but personally I'd prefer a little more originality to them. Same with the eyes, if everone's going to have a very uncommon eye colour I'd like to know why. If it causes some sort of conflict, well that's even better!

      In that same MS I read (an agented MS) I don't think there was a single character that didn't have either blue, green or grey eyes. And there was no reason for it. That's more the 'anatomical impossibilities' I was getting at.

      Thanks for posting a thoughtful comment, Sarah. :)

  3. I've always wanted to write short story entirely out of cliches... but I think I'd hang myself along the way ...

    1. Yea ... it could get a bit painful! Would be an interesting exercise though! And then you can refer back to it every time you need a reminder of what not to write. ;)

  4. I rarely mention eye color (American spelling) for a character. I might say a character has dark eyes, which I especially like if the character is blonde. Other than that, it rarely matters.
    When I write about the Greek goddess Athena, I have to say she has gray eyes, because her flashing gray eyes are part of the myth.