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How to Avoid Clichés and Write Unique Prose

An Analysis of The Priory of the Orange Tree

A blue dragon curled around a tower.
Cover art by Ivan Velikov for Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree.

I use clichés frequently in my writing, especially in first drafts. It’s difficult to avoid them, since “they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication” (Terry Pratchett said that).


Some of the phrases we’re most familiar with come from the Bible (e.g. “bite the dust” from Psalm 72:9) or Shakespeare (e.g. “forever and a day” from As You Like It). Others are not necessarily famous sayings with documented origins, but are common ways of describing things that writers use over and over again, perhaps without even realizing it. For example, “the sun shone brightly,” “her eyes were deep pools he could drown in,” “a cold shiver ran up their spine,” or “he sweat buckets” are descriptions we’ve all read before.


While clichés aren’t bad and can be effective ways of phrasing ideas, you can also fill your toolbox with other gadgets. If I’ve learned anything from reading Samantha Shannon’s fantasy novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree, using unique phrasing can help develop your writer’s voice and allows you to provide specific details about your story and your narrator. Here are five techniques I noted while reading Priory that you can apply to your writing.


1. Use fresh metaphors to reveal something about a scene or character.


Metaphors are useful if they clarify or emphasize something. They’re helpful for making a new experience feel familiar or a familiar experience feel new. Rewriting a clichéd metaphor in your own words might make a deeper impact than the original. Shannon plays with metaphors by tying them to the specifics of her story, setting, or characters. For example, she turns a familiar phrase—“Her heart was pounding”—into something new:

“Her heart was a fistful of thunder.”

I like this word choice, because fear is not an emotion you want your reader to associate with anything boring. If a phrase is something they’ve seen before, they might skip over it without thinking. By comparing the character’s heart to thunder, Shannon gets across the feeling of a rapid pulse without using a cliché.


This scene also takes place outside, near the ocean, at night. Though it is not raining or storming, the use of the word thunder contributes to a weathered, sea-spray-in-your-face setting. It also points towards an empowered female character. This character is not just “afraid” or dealing with a “pounding heart,” she is facing thunder. She is thunder. It’s a fitting description for this character, who is training to be a dragon rider and would give up anything to make it happen.


2. Use similes to convey the narrator's tone.


Similes can emphasize the narrator’s voice and use language that they would use. For example, the sentence, “Stepping outside, the heat felt like a nuclear explosion” wouldn’t make sense in a high fantasy novel. In Priory, Shannon writes this instead:

“Going outside was like stepping into a kiln. The heat varnished her skin and made her hair feel thicker.”

A kiln, which is a type of oven used to fire clay, is something familiar to a medieval society, so it’s an appropriate comparison. The description of her hair also connects readers to the narrator’s specific experience.


3. Use personification.


Samantha plays with simple sentences for dramatic effect. For example, instead of saying, “The clouds drifted away from the moon,” she writes:

“The clouds released the moonlight they had hidden.”

I appreciate the personification of the clouds here; it sounds like they were holding the moonlight captive. In another paragraph, Shannon writes:

“The Sundial Garden drank in the morning light. Its paths were honeyed by the sun, and the roses that trimmed its lawns held a soft blush. It was watched over by the statues of the five Great Queens of the House of Berethnet, which stood on a lintel above the entrance to the nearby Dearn Tower. Sabran usually liked to take walks on days like this, arm in arm with one of her ladies, but today the paths were empty. The queen would be in no mood for a stroll when a corpse had been found so close to her bed.”

Shannon could have simply written, “the sun shone on the Sundial Garden,” but she brings it alive by saying it “drank in the morning light.” Drinking is not something a setting can literally do, but it sets our imagination to work. The garden is also “watched over” by statues, which presents them as guardians, even though they are inanimate objects.

Even though it’s lovely phrasing, I still might have lost interest in this paragraph if the scene wasn’t linked to a character, Sabran, and the events of the story. Linking story elements to the description kept me invested.


4. Balance the rhythm of your sentences.


A mix of short, long, simple, and compound sentences—and even some fragments and run-ons—make reading a more pleasurable experience. I easily fall into the habit of using the same type of sentences over and over, but this can be monotonous. For example, I rewrote one of Shannon’s paragraphs using only simple sentences:

The gates of the Grand Temple were open. They were flanked by two dragon statues. Forty horses trotted between them. The temple had been burned in the past. It was later rebuilt with stone. Hundreds of lanterns dripped from its eves. They looked like fishing floats.

Compare that to the original paragraph from Priory:

“The gates of the Grand Temple of the Cape were open for the first time in a decade. They were flanked by two colossal statues of dragons, mouths open in eternal roars. Forty horses trotted between them. Once made of wood, the temple had been burned to the ground during the Great Sorrow and later rebuilt with stone. Hundreds of blue-glass lanterns dripped from its eaves, exuding cold light. They looked like fishing floats.”

Sooo much better.


5. Be precise.


Shannon could have written, “Quietly, the red-orange dawn cracked like a speckled heron’s egg over the tall buildings of Seiiki.” But instead, she writes this:

“Dawn cracked like a heron’s egg over Seiiki.”

Those extra words in my version don’t serve much purpose. Readers know that dawn doesn’t make a sound, so “quietly” is superfluous. The “red-orange” is unnecessary because everyone has seen a sunrise and can imagine the colours as they wish. The heron’s egg being speckled or buildings being tall are also insignificant details. The sentence packs more punch with fewer adjectives and adverbs.


Another method is to use specific words instead of generic ones. Why write boat when you could write brigantine? Why write walked swiftly when you could write ran? Why write flower when you could write rose?


Shannon could also have written “Dawn cracked like an egg over Seiiki,” and the sentence would have worked fine. However, I appreciate that she compares the sunrise to a “heron’s egg” and not just an egg, because the specificity links the image to a body of water without having to use the word sea or ocean. Herons are likely birds the narrator sees often, so it also makes sense for her voice.

 

Avoiding clichés and writing unique prose is a matter of practicing and developing your narrator’s voice. The nice thing about writing is that you can focus on these things after the first draft is complete, during revisions. That way, you can get the story down without constantly pausing to wonder if you’re using too many clichés or familiar phrases. I appreciate authors like Samantha Shannon, who inspire me to let my characters’ tone inform my word choices and reveal the story.

Comments


The book cover of Making Myths and Magic: A Field Guide to Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels.

ABOUT

Allison Alexander is a writer and editor specializing in sci-fi, fantasy, and nerdy nonfiction. You can find her playing D&D, chasing otter penguins off the Normandy, or co-hosting The World-builder’s Tavern, a podcast for speculative fiction writers.

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