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Arts & Entertainment

Shonda Rhimes’s 10 Tips for Avoiding Clichés in Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Aug 14, 2020 • 4 min read

Have you ever watched a movie or TV show and noticed that a line of dialogue or a plot point seemed familiar? Maybe a character says, "let’s get the hell out of dodge," or the film's hero is a prophesied "chosen one." These are both examples of clichés. If you're a beginner screenwriter wondering how to avoid using clichés in your own writing, there’s no better guide than acclaimed television writer and producer Shonda Rhimes.



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Shonda Rhimes on Embracing Originality

What Is a Cliché?

A cliché is an expression that was once innovative but has lost its novelty due to overuse. Take the phrase “as red as a rose” for example—it is a universal descriptor for the color red that is now commonplace and unoriginal. Other examples of clichés include demarcations of time, such as “in the nick of time” and “at the speed of light.” Clichés also include expressions about emotions, such as “head over heels” to describe love, or the phrase “every cloud has a silver lining” to express hope in difficult situations.

Shonda Rhimes's 6 Tips for Avoiding Clichés in Writing

Whether it’s a cliché phrase of dialogue, a cliché storyline, a stereotypical plot point, or a stock character, unoriginal writing can weaken a screenplay. If you're wondering how to avoid clichés in your own screenwriting, consider Shonda Rhimes's tips for finding originality.

  1. If your dialogue sounds familiar, write something new. "Any line of dialogue that you've ever heard anybody say before is already a cliché, so don't write it down." When there are seemingly limitless ways to express a sentiment, why wouldn't you create an original sentence? If you're struggling to come up with fresh words, use a thesaurus—just be careful to not misuse an unfamiliar word.
  2. Strive to create a new cliché. "Your goal isn't to copy somebody that you admire, your goal is to be the thing that other people would admire themselves." Instead of borrowing from someone else's writing, make your own writing completely original. Make it your goal to write something so innovative that it becomes a new cliché.
  3. Put a new spin on an old cliché. "There's almost nothing new under the sun. But there are different interpretations and different ways of thinking of things that are new." It's impossible to be one hundred percent unique all the time, so try putting a new twist on a familiar concept. Use a familiar idea as inspiration, and approach it from a new point of view. A great way to create an effective plot twist is to start with a clichéd premise, then subvert the audience’s expectations by going in a different direction.
  4. Write realistic dialogue. "You want your dialogue to have a real quality that doesn't feel like 'TV talk.'" Shonda stresses that authentic dialogue should sound the way people actually talk. In real life, people don't talk in complete sentences, they use the wrong words, they talk over each other, and nobody says all the perfect things at the perfect times.
  5. Eavesdrop on real conversations for inspiration. "I think of my dialogue as being the conversations that real people have—the kind you would overhear someone having if you were hiding in a closet in their house." According to Shonda, one of the best ways to get a feel for how people actually talk is to pay attention to how people talk in the real world.
  6. Listen to your dialogue read aloud. “Get somebody else to read your dialogue out loud for you, because then you can really hear how it sounds. ” You might not realize you used a cliché until you hear it spoken out loud. Shonda tries to say her dialogue out loud as she writes to make sure it sounds like something someone would say. When you finish your first draft, either read your dialogue aloud yourself or ask someone else to read it aloud for you. If you notice any overused phrases, go back and rewrite them in a fresh way.
Shonda Rhimes Teaches Writing for Television
Shonda Rhimes Teaches Writing for Television
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25 Common Clichés to Avoid in Your Writing

When working on your own screenplays, avoid these common clichés.

  1. “The wrong side of the bed.”
  2. “Think outside the box.”
  3. “Loose canon.”
  4. “A perfect storm.”
  5. “Can of worms.”
  6. “What goes around comes around.”
  7. “Dead as a doornail.”
  8. “Plenty of fish in the sea.”
  9. “Ignorance is bliss.”
  10. “Like a kid in a candy store.”
  11. “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
  12. “Take the tiger by the tail.”
  13. “Every rose has its thorn.”
  14. “Good things come to those who wait.”
  15. “In the nick of time.”
  16. “If only walls could talk.”
  17. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
  18. “The pot calling the kettle black.”
  19. “The grass is always greener on the other side.”
  20. “Beating a dead horse.”
  21. "At the end of the day."
  22. "It was a dark and stormy night."
  23. "Go the extra mile."
  24. "Jack of all trades, master of none."
  25. "Cat got your tongue?"


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