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January 21: Flash Fiction Challenge

The old cliche goes like this — there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. My response is, I hope it’s not a train! We all get the concept, which is why cliches are well-used like a favorite pair of driving gloves in winter. Whenever we hop into the car to drive we put them on, overlooking their frayed edges. They do their job.

So, why are writers encouraged to purge cliches from their writing? The well-worn phrases become mindless substitutions and fail to create imagery in the mind of the reader.

Take the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. If I tell you that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, most will understand that I see an end to a period of darkness. But what does that really mean? What is my period of darkness, or more to the point, what is your character experiencing?

Sally the tightrope walker suffers an illness that left her temporarily blind. Her light at the end of the tunnel could be the return of the spotlight on her rope. Beyond her emerging vision she could see hemp.

Betty Jo the Boston Terrier wandered off from her family on a camping trip. She walked 200 miles to get home. When the little dog turned down her street and saw an end to her arduous journey, she could see the kitchen light illuminating her dog door.

Miss Jernegon taught school on the alkali flats between ranches, wishing her life were more sophisticated. When she received a letter from a boarding school out east, she could hear the train that would carry her away from dust storms and starved cattle.

It’s late, and my examples aren’t stellar, but you get the idea. Instead of saying each character had come to the point in their story where they could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I looked for a way to express the idea of hopeful endings to difficult circumstances. You can search your characters’ setting or personality traits to inform a cliche.

Don’t worry about cliches in your first draft. They show up because they come to mind easily. When you revise, look for metaphors, similes, and familiar phrases in your work, and then think of how you can rebuild the concept.

At the crack of dawn becomes:

  • when the solar inferno crests the horizon
  • at the border between night and day
  • when robins summon the sun

Back-stabber becomes:

  • fake friend
  • the boss’s informant
  • cut worm

Flat as a pancake becomes:

  • flat as new iPhone
  • flat as a fat tire on a wilderness bike trail
  • flat as a dead heartbeat

When it comes to cliches, you can think outside the box…I mean, you can let your mind wander the fence-less prairie beyond the ranch. For fun and practice, we are going to tackle cliches periodically. Grab the bull by the…wait…grab the carrot by the top and pull. You know, roll up our sleeves…I mean, put on our work jeans and calf-poop encrusted boots and get to work on rewriting the light at the end of the tunnel in a story.

Quick update — the puppy is growing (teeth) and learning to beg for naps. I’m an easy target, willing to snuggle for naps on the couch. My thesis is in jeopardy. Time is flying…I mean time is slipping through…time is a back-stabber, a pizza parlor robber, a fickle cat at the back door.

January 21, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that rephrases “light at the end of the tunnel.” Think of how the cliche replacement communicates a hopeful ending and aligns with your character or story. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by January 26, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

The Promised Light by Charli Mills

Copper reminded Jess of Christmas caramels, all smooshed and clinging to the bedrock. After Pa died, the mine captain told Ma, “Send a son or get out of the company’s house.” Jess was built stronger than her brother with weak lungs. When she chopped her hair and changed clothes, no one said a word. Not even Ma.

Mostly, Jess fetched for the men or hauled buckets of copper caramels to the ore carts. Not much longer. Ma was cooking a plan to remarry another miner. Climbing nineteen stories of ladders, Jess thought the sun was the Star of Bethlehem.



  1. The self-importance of being Ernest

    Ernest had heard that, in their dying moments, people see an incandescent light. He took that with a grain of salt, believing that, according to Murphy’s Law, when the lights are out there’s nobody home and to suggest otherwise was grasping at straws. He longed to rattle the cages of these speculators and suggest they’d fallen asleep at the wheel while putting lipstick on a pig. He didn’t want to act like a bull in a china shop but, to make a long story short, he thought this theory was about as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle.

  2. […] Author’s Notes: It’s a Friday. A New Day a story. Call it Friday Fact or Fiction. Some stories will be 100% fact (or close to it) while others will be 100% fiction. Most will be a little bit of both. You, the reader, can delight in speculating where the story belongs.Today’s entry is in a category known as flash fiction. There are many other names (micro, mini, nano, etc) and a variety of different lengths (one-word stories, six-word stories, 12-word stories, 100 words, 500 words.) Carrot Ranch is a dynamic online literary community for those practicing their craft, reading stories and discussing the process. Charlie Mills hosts the weekly Flash Fiction challenge which limits stories to 99 words – no more, no less. This week’s challenge is to write with the prompt of “the light at the end of the tunnel.” […]

  3. […] This was written with the prompt to write a story that rephrases “‘the light at the end of a tunnel” provided by the Carrot Ranch January 21 Flash Fiction Challenge. […]

  4. The return of Jess! Well done, that flash.
    Oi. “It’s late” you say. That’s boggles my mind as by my clock 5am is early. But the darkest hour is right before the dawn, Boss, and as the say, if ya can’t get over it, go around it for you’ve many rivers to cross and the spilt milk under the bridge isn’t going to pour itself. Or something like that. And the early worm gets the rotting apple that didn’t fall far from the tree in the green grass on the other side of the fence, if ya know what I mean.
    I don’t, but thank you for the prompt and breathe and find the track that gets you where you’re going but leads away from the ledge. It’ll all work out.

  5. Liz H says:

    Again, really loving your flash this week. Seeing Jess with a long, arduous journey through the darkness with the promised deliverance at the end. Which we know is also the beginning of another hard journey.
    But that is another story, to be told at another time…

  6. denmaniacs4 says:

    Blight at the Bend of the Funnel

    Bill Engleson

    “And so, my friends, I pray that we will soon see the light at…”

    “Careening cliches, Blurt Man, he’s doing it again… gotta cover my ears…”

    “Charlie, you’re too tough on him. The People understand what it means. It’s what they’re expecting.”

    “Fifty times a day? A hundred? Kinda loses it’s punch.”

    “You think you can do any better?”

    “Mebbe. Let’s see. Glow worm at the end of the hook?”

    “Nah. Don’t think so.”

    “Okay. How about streetlight on a foggy London night?”

    “That’s better.”

    “Nose to the grindstone, then.”

    “You have got your work cut out for you.”

  7. Anne Goodwin says:

    A great prompt, Charli. A good discipline to write without cliché, especially for an idea that the cliché encapsulates so well. You’ve led the way, however; good to see Jess again.

    My 99-word story is about a tourist cliché that nevertheless means a lot to Diana who is still at the forefront of my mind.

    The story: Sunrise over the pyramids

    The post: Have I swallowed a horse to catch a fly?

    • Excellent take on the prompt, Anne. 15 is a good age to realise that all that glisters is not gold.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Jess showed up before the dawn so I revised her story to put her in a mine shaft, Anne. Cliches might be harder for writers to detect than their editor counterparts. Yes, a good discipline to apply.

  8. […] Carrot Ranch flash fiction […]

  9. Ritu says:

    All submitted. Not sure if I went the right way, but I enjoyed writing it, nonetheless!

  10. There’s no ‘right’ way in this space, Ritu. Loved your piece. I think Becky should ditch Jerk, sorry, Jake, at the first opportunity. 🙂

  11. […] Carrot Ranch January 21, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that rephrases “light at the end of the tunnel.” Think of how the cliche replacement communicates a hopeful ending and aligns with your character or story. Go where the prompt leads! Respond by January 26, 2021. […]

  12. Jules says:


    We can only imagine how tough life was for those families of the past who had so little control over their environments. One can only hope that Jess doesn’t have to stay in the mines for long.

    Here’s where I was drawn:
    tunnel vision?

    who can fathom what cataract eyes see
    familiarity with one’s surroundings
    makes up for some of the details
    ghost memories who walked where
    the spouse no longer in the house

    with the years of age piling high
    who can guess what dreams
    the old sailor envisions on the screens
    on the backs of those ancient baggy eyelids
    that won’t open before two in the afternoon

    how short is that road that will
    reunite husband with wife –
    the old sailor refuses to leave his ship –
    refuses to recognize the rising bilge water
    that is slowly draining his own life away


  13. TanGental says:

    While the boys wait for their flight home, there’s time to think about cliches…

    ‘I think there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.’
    ‘British Airways are now digging a tunnel under the Atlantic?’
    ‘Ha ha, Logan. They’ve found a replacement plane and are preparing it. The engineers are prepping it and we should be good to go. Soon.’
    ‘Today? This week? Sometime before this diet of airport food fills me so full of chemicals I grow a third buttock?’
    ‘They hope today.’
    ‘You know, that wasn’t the light at the end of the tunnel.’
    ‘No, that was a British Airways numpty with a torch looking for somewhere to hide.’

  14. suespitulnik says:

    Hi Charli,

    I’m glad the puppy is making you take naps. I”m wondering if you can get a later date for your thesis to ease some of the stress.
    One of my vets is regularly highlighting any cliche I use in my writing and encouraging me to change it. I enjoyed your examples.
    One of the best things about writing a serial for the prompts you give us is my characters can constantly shift spots on their timeline. Michael thanks you for giving him the opportunity to tell us more about his recovery…

    A Breakthrough

    Clare, Michael’s physical therapist, nicknamed Clarice, was relentless. “Sergeant, there is absolutely no reason you can’t learn to walk on prosthetic legs other than your own stubbornness! Put them on and get out of that wheelchair.”
    To her surprise, he said, “Yes, ma’am. Hand them here.”
    She stared at him a few seconds. “You’ve been making excuses for weeks. What’s changed?”
    Michael grinned. “My prayers have been answered. Heard from home that my high school sweetheart’s leaving her husband. Now I have a reason to want to walk out of here, the sooner the better.”
    “That’s a new one.”

    • Charli Mills says:

      Hi Sue, yes, I am talking options with my advisor this weekend. She might have another suggestion, too. At least the puppy makes sure I get some rest. It’s good to have someone point out cliches if that’s the level of critique you want. I’m working on a way to help writers communicate what they need in critique groups. But later! As to shifting your timeline, I also like to write scenes that way, too. It’s at the revision level we arrange them. I love the shift in Michael’s mindset when he regains hope for his future. This week’s serial is poignant, coming after his proposal.

    • Norah says:

      When there’s purpose, there’s a way. I like this one.

    • Guess he just needed something to walk towards.
      Good one, Sue.

  15. Chel Owens says:

    😀 Great alternates on familiar phrases, Charli. 😀

  16. Norah says:

    Love all your examples and the challenge, Charli. You’re helping me see the light, I hope it flows from the tip of my pen like water, or my keyboard like music. I am sorry to hear your thesis is in jeopardy though, but I’m sure you’ll pull through to a brand new day – just as Jess saw the star of Bethlehem, your North Star will guide you through.

    • Charli Mills says:

      I’m following that North Star, Norah. I feel like I have strings tied to all my fingers and have to weave as I right. I’m waiting for the pattern to click.

    • Norah says:

      I’m back with my playful response. Thanks for joining me, D. and Charli. 😂😉

      With a Little Help from My Friends

      “Whatcha doing?”
      “Can I help?”
      The two girls dug side by side. Then D. broke the silence, “What’re we digging?”
      “A tunnel.”
      “Charli wants to come down too. We can’t use the zipline anymore. Anyways, going through a tunnel’s quicker’n going round.”
      “Looks jes like a hole to me.”
      “Tunnels always start as holes.”
      They continued digging. The pile of dirt grew higher as the hole got deeper.
      “Look. We can stand in it now,” said Norah.
      “How will we know when we get there?”
      “Easy. Charli’s waiting, holding a light to show us the way.”

      • Hee hee. Thanks for bringing me along Buddy.

        Norah calculated that they could tunnel to a place called Carrot Ranch.
        “Is it a real ranch?” D. asked.
        “As real a place as you can imagine.”
        “Norah? We zipped to Down Under. Are we digging to Up Over?”
        Digging with D. was a long haul. Then—
        “We’re there! So here we are.”
        And sure enough, there were carrots like orange stalactites.
        “Norah, would these carrots be stalagmites Down Under?”
        A carrot shimmied and shook and was pulled up through the ground! Through the hole where the carrot had been the girls could see Charli, standing in the light.

      • Norah says:

        Thank you so much for your brilliant addition to my story, D. You took it further than I could ever have imagined. I love that Charli was there with a carrot to open the ‘door’ and shine the light to show our way.

      • Your flash shows friendship and childhood very well. I love how the second girl jumps in and starts digging without even bothering about why at first.
        This took me right back to a considerably large hole I had one summer as a kid. It was a fort of sorts but now I think I might have been looking for the ranch and you all. Treasures.

      • Norah says:

        Yay! You found us!
        The second girl jumps in cause she jes knows it’s gonna be fun – and important! That’s what kids do. 🙂

      • Charli Mills says:

        It’s fun to play with you, Norah! See you in the pool!

      • Norah says:

        Can’t wait! 🙂

      • Charli Mills says:

        I love that carrots can be the door! Come on up over, the soil is fine, the light is shining!

      • Norah says:

        Yes. I love the carrots being the door too. Thanks for the welcome.

  17. […] If you want to participate, here’s the link:  CARROT RANCH […]

  18. jgard3 says:

    After Megan said goodbye to Mom, they went to Kalahari. Steamed windows trapped exuberant voices echoing off fake rocks. They snaked up wooden steps to a platform overlooking the chaos.

    A lifeguard craned his head over the edge, then waved Megan through.

    She grabbed the lip of the tunnel and plunged into the darkness, each moment a snapshot: dropping suddenly—the day Mom revealed her illness; rising quickly—the brief hope of treatment; shifting sideways—the loss of hair; plummeting toward wavering lines of light—a heart monitor’s monotonous hiccup; Finally, cool blue water and Dad’s warm, immovable arms.

  19. […] at Carrot Ranch the January 21, 2021, prompt is: “In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that rephrases ‘light at the end of […]

  20. Clichés. I have a love/hate relationship with those little buggers. I mean, they’re awful yet, as you said, we all get the concept and understand what people are trying to say when they use them. Also, they can be kind of fun to play with. But, depending on what you’re writing, it’s probably best to avoid them like the plague. 😉 Cheers!

  21. Coming In

    Skipper. Always a corncob pipe stuck in his mouth, puffin’ away like that’s what powered the boat. Remember one time we got caught out in a bad nor’easter. That corncob grew cold but he kept it clenched in his teeth as he steered through the troughs and waves, me shivering scared in the cuddy cabin. I didn’t believe we’d weather that one. Then somehow Skipper had a free hand to relight his pipe under the brim of his oilskin hat. The storm was still pounding wild, but that round glow chipping at the dark told me we’d come through.


    His hands at his chest clutching the blanket edge reminds me of him at the helm that night, our lives depending on his firm and determined grip. Now the electronic machines cast steady waves of green light, marking ebb and flow. If it were a depth finder I could read it. His breath wheezes like the gurgling stem of that corncob pipe. That tube in his throat, does he think that’s his pipe? Aren’t his lips moving, champing at the familiar bit? I want to believe he’ll weather this one. I watch his hands. Light your damn pipe, Skipper.

  22. […] weekly 99-word Flash Fiction Challenge over at Carrot […]

  23. […] flash fiction challenge at The Carrot Ranch: A flash piece, 99 words (no less, no more — just like the tombstone in… um, […]

  24. Portofino says:

    I enjoyed the challenge! Not something I do often… just when it captures me.

  25. Where It Leads

    “Pal, did’ja read this week’s post? S‘bout clichés, but this phrasin’ always strikes me: ‘out east’. Where I come from it’s ‘out *west*’ an’ ‘*back* east’. Shorty’s got it bass ackwards.”
    “Where’d ya come from?”
    “Back east.”
    “‘Splains a lot; like yer per-petchull greenhorn status, but it don’t ‘splain yer dialect whut drives spellchuck crazy.”
    “Folks that really pay ‘tention kin see that I’m more articulit an’ sophisticated then you. But ain’t ever’one out west from back east ‘rigin’ly?”
    “Jeez! Fer one, in.dig.en.ous.; fer two, buckaroos. Fer three, dudes an’ greenhorns.”
    “Was prompted west by carrot colored campfire light.”

  26. […] Carrot Ranch Prompt (01/21/2021): In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that rephrases “light at the end of the tunnel.” Think of how the cliché replacement communicates a hopeful ending and aligns with your character or story. Go where the prompt leads! […]

  27. Liz H says:

    Here’s one for warmer climes and other times:

    Ligth at the End of the Tunnel

    Dipping her paddle expertly, Sara struggled against the increasingly muscular pull of the current. The sun rose, set, and rose again; unnoticed under the moss-choked cypress trees that canopied the dark creek.

    Pa’d gotten home from just one night of gambling away the dole; she’d hoped for a week, time enough to get herself free and clear. He must have been unlucky with the cards. No matter. He’d almost killed her last time; she had to go.

    Now, having joined the river, Sarah knew that if she kept paddling upstream, she’d find clear waters and an anonymous city.


  28. […] Flash Fiction for Carrot Ranch No Cliché “light at the end of the tunnel” challenge  […]

  29. Alexander De says:

    First bit of fiction I’ve written in a while. Thanks for this one!

    Clean Fingernails Make Me Jittery

  30. Hi Charli
    Great prompt!
    What a fantastic collection of enlightening FF!

    D. Avery’s FF “Coming In” reminded me of St. Elmo’s fire at sea — good omen for sailors.

    Reflecting over ideas re “Light at the end of the tunnel”
    — Faint glow of ideas
    This is soo irresistible!
    A challenge for me to write FF about
    candle-light or the blue glow of St. Elmo’s fire or will-o’-the-wisp or jack-o’-lantern; ghost-lights…lightsabers…


  31. I have been really into suspenseful and horror type writing lately. Here is my take on the prompt.

  32. […] January 21: Flash Fiction Challenge […]

  33. Kavita Deo says:

    I enjoyed the challenge. Here is my write up “Fuck the diet”

  34. […] January 21, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that rephrases “light at the end of the tunnel.” Think of how the cliche replacement communicates a hopeful ending and aligns with your character or story. Go where the prompt leads!Respond by January 26, 2021 […]

  35. […] Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge – Jan 21 […]

  36. […] back at the Carrot Ranch and being prompted to think about cliches. I wonder what the boys will make of […]

  37. […] 99-word flash fiction piece was written in response to Charli Mills’ weekly challenge at Carrot Ranch. Thanks Charli for the […]

  38. […] a story that rephrases “light at the end of the tunnel” provided by the Carrot Ranch January 21 Flash Fiction Challenge. This is my second […]

  39. […] Mills’ January 21, 2021 Flash Fiction Challenge was to write a story in 99 words (no more, no less) that rephrases ‘light at the end of the […]

  40. Kate says:

    The prompt played into what must all be feeling these days. Even our weather last week got into the act, giving us a glimpse of what awaits us after a few more winter storms. I decided to return to the hospital and Dr. Abby who I introduced as a character in a story last December.


    Abby flipped the switch to off and began removing the prongs from her patient’s nose.

    “Good news, Mr. Scarlatti, no more oxygen tubes today,” she said and handed him a cup of water.

    “Does that mean I can go home tomorrow?”

    “Let’s see how you do today and then we’ll talk.”

    “But I am strong,” he said, hacking out a boisterous cough.

    “Knowing you, we’ll have you walking out of the hospitalꟷ”

    “And into your arms?”


    “Then into the caressing and loving arms of my beautiful Maria. How about the day after tomorrow?”

    Abby laughed. “Let’s hope so.”

  41. […] This week Charli Mills challenged writers to In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that rephrases “light at the end of the tunnel.” T… […]

  42. […] write a story about dressing up.“– prompts used for this CW piece.[Source: Carrot Ranch 1, 2, and […]

  43. Great suggestions for replacing cliches. Thanks! I’m too late for the writing challenge, but I’ll look for another in future.

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