Harlequin REFRESH Writing Challenge: Replace the cliche

On Tuesday we wrote about freshening your narrative voice by eliminating clichés. Easier said than done! Sometimes a cliché seems to express what you want to say perfectly. So how do replace the perfect words with more perfect ones? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What’s my character’s motivation?

                   “Her mouth formed a perfect O.” She was surprised. Why? What else might be going through her mind, and how might she react?

  • Am I “telling” instead of “showing”?

                   “Her mouth formed a perfect O” = she was surprised. How might you engage the reader more deeply with the heroine’s feelings in the scene?

  • How do real people act?

                  “Her mouth formed a perfect O.” What do people do when they’re surprised? 

Your challenge this week? Suggest alternatives to some of the clichés in Tuesday’s list. Choose one, two or three from the list and write your variations in the comments any time between now and Sunday, January 13, 2019, and we’ll check back with you on Monday!

20 replies on “Harlequin REFRESH Writing Challenge: Replace the cliche”

Oh, this sounds like fun! Like a test or pop quiz, but not a test. I’ll choose some of my own pitfalls from the list cuz I’m so guilty of them.

1. She bit her lip. – Usually I get that the author (or when I’m writing, myself) wants to convey that the heroine or character is communicating nervousness/anxiety here. Maybe excitement and there’s some teasing play between her and the hero. Like a playful innocence. Without any other description, let’s fall back on some of these emotions.

If it’s playful, teasing bit of the lip, I’d probably consider taking out the lip bite and adding dialogue. I honestly have NEVER seen anyone bit their lip in real life. Lick their lips, yes, and usually I find that’s involuntary. So, it’s actually a tad unrealistic. Sort of like saying “She batted her eyelashes.”

If it’s out of anxiousness, there are other ways to show a character is getting nervous. Fidgeting. Stammering/stuttering. An inability to listen…zoning out. Darting eyes, so having a hard time focusing on someone and busy searching for an escape route. Voice could grow quiet or saying a sentence out of order because you’re so nervous.

2. Food descriptors for skin color. – For me this one is big. I’m not a fan of it when I keep reading a POC character, especially a black one, has a deliciously dark chocolate or milk chocolate skin tone. Chocolate brown eyes. Check. Chocolate, yum, yum. I try to steer away from this. I’ll focus on things like, what kind of brown or undertones in the brown are they. For instance, I’m actually a dark, dusky brown, yes, but I have a redder undertone. There are other with a cooler, bluish undertone to their skin.

Also, what the flip with white characters, especially pale ones having milky white skin, or CREAMY skin. So it goes all ways.

3. Body parts acting independently. – I can be guilty of this if I don’t catch myself, and I don’t always. It’s easy to be in a moment where you might have thought I’ve overused personal pronoun too much so I’ll replace “He slid his hands down her back, cupping the perfect globes of her rear.” with “His hands slid down her back, cupping the perfect globes of her rear.” Thanks to CPs and betas catching this early on in my writing endeavor; I’m at least more aware of ‘wandering body parts’ syndrome in my manuscripts. xD


I’m looking forward to what everyone else has thought up of for suggestions. 🙂 Let’s start this year off with bettering our stories and bettering our skills. Cheers!

Excellent examples, Hana! Agreed on all fronts. It’s great that you can admit you sometimes catch this in your own work (we all do it!). I laughed at “bit her lip,” because you’re right — I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen anyone do this in real life, but I’ve read it quite often. Thanks for sharing! : )

Body Parts
Adam relaxed his face, aiming for a calm expression. He wouldn’t learn anything if Janice thought he had an ulterior motive. “I recognize you. Weren’t you a journalist for WTFS news here, in Seattle?”
The blonde paused with her hand on the Mercedes door handle. He could see by the set of her shoulders, he’d said something to make her tense. Slowly, Janice turned around. Her eyes looked back at him, flat and lifeless. The dark grey color reminded him of a shark. “WFTS news,” she corrected, and gave him a wide smile, showing too many teeth.
He had upset her, interesting. Something about her time as a reporter stirred up bad feelings. “I knew it was you. I remember your last story on distracted driving, good stuff.” He infused enthusiasm in his words and lifted one corner of his mouth to flash a dimple. This was his charming and disarming maneuver, usually it worked.
Janice’s head lifted a touch has she blinked at him. He could tell she was starting to believe he was a fan.
Adam expanded his smile and let it do the rest of the persuading.

I think the name of the television station is hilarious. Just a quick tip: all radio and television stations west of the Mississippi River begin with the call letter “K.” East of the Mississippi, all radio and television stations begin with the callletter “W” – except for KDKA in Pittsburgh, PA. That was the first radio station in the United States; hence, that station is the only one that has gone against that rule.

Great passage, Ivy! There are lots of ways to show body parts moving here, without them moving of their own accord. : ) Also, that’s a cool fact, Rebecca, I didn’t know that!

Thanks so much formthe feedback. With the TV station, I went for the laugh. WTF. Also, I wouldnt want to stumble on to a REAL TV station, so I made one up. There would be legal issues and approvals to get with a real call sign. : )

Cool challenge.

She pushed the thought/notion aside = ‘Think of something else.’ (Poss followed by character’s name.) In italics as internal dialogue. Takes us more inside her head. Gives deeper POV.

His smile didn’t reach his eyes. = ‘He pretended he was ok. He wasn’t.’ That’s more inside his head. Gives a hint that there’s motivation here. Or, ‘He faked a smile’ because that changes the subject from the smile back to the hero.

Her cheeks reddened. = “Dammit. Her cheeks were suddenly hot.” Trying to work on the POV here. Unless she is looking in a mirror, she wouldn’t know that her cheeks were red. But she would feel the heat in them. And if she’s blushing, described the original way, she doesn’t sound happy about it, therefore ‘dammit.’


I definitely like the idea of taking the character in a different direction instead of having her just “push the thought aside.” It tells you more about her and what she would rather focus on. I also like the way that you are thinking about perspective here. A woman doesn’t actually know her cheeks are red, even if she might suspect it. Furthermore, as you said, the emotions that cause the heroine to blush should be front and center.

Feelings that are “beyond” the feeling: I was beyond excited, etc. – So, you went “beyond” someplace. I went beyond Columbus, so where did I go? Dayton? Cincinnati? Indianapolis?
Sex described as “mind-blowing.” – This phrase only works when you’re time-jumping over a weekend where the only time the hero and heroine got out of bed to eat and go to the bathroom. Come to think of it, that phrase doesn’t work well there, either. This one definitely falls in the “show, don’t tell” category.
Food descriptors for skin colour, such as mocha, caramel, etc. – This is what happens when you over-use your thesaurus. It’s probably better to grab a big box of crayons, find the color you’re looking for, and work with it.

Cliché: She tilted her chin:
“You haven’t been home in three weeks, since you promised to chain yourself to the Wicked Bitch of the West.” She stood up, walked around his desk, then sat on it facing him.

Cliché: Her mass of unruly fiery-red/flaming/raving/gold curls:
She looked in the mirror and murderous thoughts crossed her head. That stupid hairdresser left her looking like a match on fire. She could be a Ronald McDonalds lookalike! She might as well have dumped her head in her grandmother’s pasta sauce, it would have been cheaper.

Cliché: Her cheeks reddened:
Miranda looked at the crowd. They were staring at her and laughing. Everyone knew that she had cut the cheese. Her face felt hotter than Hell in July. They could probably read by the light of cheeks.

I really liked your focus on emotion. Oftentimes, I find that the use of clichés results in a lack of information about emotions. Yet, while everyone may understand why a character’s cheeks would redden while he or she is in an embarrassing situation, it is much more interesting to describe the specific feelings the character experiences. Doing so helps draw readers into the scene instead of allowing them to simply skip over something they have come to expect.

Coming up with something other than the easy cliche is something I’ve been working on recently so this is timed perfectly. There have already been some good examples given, so I’ll try my hand at a few. Not saying they’re great, but here goes:
1. Her mass of unruly fiery-red/flaming/raven/gold curls.
Her thick chestnut hair sprang from her head in all directions.
She looked like a raving mad red-headed Medusa.
Her brown hair looked like she’d forced it backward through a straw.
She looked like she’d combed her golden hair with a light socket.
2. She tilted her chin.–I have never seen anyone tilt their chin just before they sassed at me, so what if she doesn’t do anything? Without warning just hits the other person/hero with her sassy comeback.
3. She touched his hand and felt a jolt/spark of electricity.–I would love to see something else in the place of the electrical jolts/sparks, but what could possibly portray it better? This has stumped me. This reminds me of the movie Playing It Cool where they actually had the electrical sparks coming from the joining hands. Other than the one example here, everything I come up with sounds too corny.
She touched his hands and warmth spread from his fingers and up her arm.

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Maurine!
1. – I love how you’ve challenged yourself to come up with images beyond the tried-and-true! Nice job!
2. I also have never seen anyone do this! And love the idea of the out-of-the-blue comeback. Mic drop!
3. You bring up a very good point! Sometimes the cliched phrase feels like “le mot juste.” I wonder if anyone else here has any other suggestions for dealing with the “jolt of electricity” moment?

His smile didn’t reach his eyes:
That he’d given any concession at all to forcing his lips into a smile was something, but Shawna wasn’t fooled. She knew when Trey was faking. And right now his eyes held none of his usual devilish spark.

Her mouth formed a perfect ‘O’:
Shawna gasped and raised a wobbly hand to her mouth. What was happening? Why was Trey on one knee?

She bit her lip:
The ring cast sun arrows into her eyes. A million thoughts chased a million more through Shawna’s head. She transferred her weight from one foot to the other and back again; twisting and turning her body and mind. Trey was waiting.

One more because I can’t resist.

Spark/jolt of electricity:

Trey’s palm rested briefly against Shawna’s and she jumped as if tasered. Trey grinned, but shoved his own vhand deep inside his jeans’ pocket in an effort to bury its sudden tingling. It didn’t work.

Dear Jeanna,

What a great job! One I have always hated was the mouth that forms a perfect O. O does it? Thank you for changing that up! It is obvious that you are skilled at refreshing tired cliches. Well done.

“He raked a hand through his hair.”
He pressed his knuckles against the tense ridges of his eyebrows, feeling the protesting muscles beneath as he kneaded the way up his forehead and onto his scalp.
“His smile didn’t reach his eyes.”
His lips curved pleasantly, showing perfect white teeth. But his eyes warned her not to press further with this idea.
And one of my most difficult ones…
“His/her lips quirked.”
She sighed and grimaced. Did she have to think about *this* too, on top of everything else?

Dear Alison, I’m impressed! What a great job of replacing those cliches! I especially like the second one with the smile, but the warning eyes. Well done. 🙂

Ok, so I’m late in participating… forgive me.
My own cliché is this:
1. She suddenly moved. Or… He was suddenly there. Yes, the movement was sudden or IMMEDIATE, but I tend to get stuck on the word sudden.
That’s my own error. I have a thesaurus, darn it, and I forget to use it!

2. My other cliché is when my characters frown. They are with always narrowing their eyes, knitting their brows or pursing their lips. When one frowns, the whole face frowns!

So those are my two little quirks that I need to work on.

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