I’m just as guilty as the next writer of throwing clichés into my work, especially when I’m writing early drafts. And I’m sure that people can go through my “final” work and find others.
That doesn’t mean I can’t note commonly used clichés that I try to avoid and see being used by other writers who enjoy working in scarier genres.
Two of these are “chills running up my spine” and “the hairs stood up on the back of my neck,” with their many variations. The problem is they do capture the sensation they describe very well—we all know what this feels like. It makes it easy for people fall back on them, but when you’re the 1,674,532th person to do so, you’re making croutons.
So it always thrills me when a writer turns this cliché into something unexpected, as Alan Bradley does in his most recent addition to his Flavia de Luce series, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. If you’re familiar with the series, you know that Flavia is an 11-year-old chemistry whiz who solves mysteries and has no fear of the corpses that pile up around her. Still, she experiences a good fright from time to time, as she does at one point in this newest novel:
“The illustrations were horrific—so horrific that I felt as if a moist snail were crawling across the back of my neck…”
I can just feel that moist snail on my neck, too. It’s a great example of a cliché beaten by a common garden visitor.