Writers who defend their clichés on the grounds that "they wouldn’t have become clichés if they weren’t good" may have a terrific point. And they should enjoy that, because what they won’t have is successful writing.
A cliché is a word or phrase that’s been overused. It may have been a clever phrase when it was new, but readers are tired of it now. Reading it is boring. (I hope you got that. I said "boring." That word should terrify you. If it doesn’t, well, maybe you should consider a new career.)
- Cliché is a crutch that lets the writer use an acceptable one-size-fits all description, instead of crafting the perfect description for the circumstances.
- A cliché makes for uninteresting reading. The reader already knows what "flat as a pancake" looks like. It doesn’t invite her to create a new mental image.
- The best writing is a rich interaction between the writer’s mind and the reader’s. Using cliché is a lazy way of writing that encourages a lazy way of reading, making it very difficult for the reader and the writer to connect.
Clichés to avoid
icing on the cake * bright and shining * all for the best
play favorites * give it a rest * just deserts
better late than never * too tired to sleep * play with fire
diamond in the rough * wet behind the ears * short and sweet
live dangerously * point of no return
When cliché is a good idea
There are a few good uses for cliché.
Irony should be used carefully, because the technique itself is becoming cliché. But if you can pull it off, the rare twisted cliché can be fun. “What a great birthday! The tickets to Hawaii were just icing on the bright red Porche.” (I didn’t say I could pull it off!)
I used to get a kick out of my dad saying “Never put off to tomorrow what you can put off indefinitely.” Isn’t he clever?
Revealing a Character
Fortunately, your characters don’t have to be as good at putting together words as you are. If Mama has been telling Henry not to go out with his friends, you might quote her as saying, “Mark my words, boy. You go up there tonight, you gonna get caught red-handed!”
Cliché used in this way lets the reader know who Mama is. We learn not only that she doesn’t want him to go, but we learn how she talks to him, and we begin to learn something about their relationship.
Because cliché doesn’t have the impact of more creative word-crafting, it’s likely that Henry isn’t going to be very strongly affected by her words. But rather than have Mama talk to the boy without using cliché, and possibly really reach him, here I want to show the reader a character who uses cliché easily, and to show the consequences of that sort of interaction. In fact, as I’ve been sitting here making up this interaction, I’ve discovered that Henry feels that his Mama never listens to him, and he ignores what she says because it’s so vague he can’t even argue with it. (Dang. I hate it when throw-away characters come to life, and I have to save them in a drawer.)
Those two uses of cliché are usually ok. But the rest you have to fix. Here’s how:
- Practice listening for cliché as you go through your day. Any phrase that could be taken from one scene and dropped into an entirely different one and work fine should get your attention.
- Read your work out loud so that clichés you miss will catch your attention.
- Visualize your scene clearly, so that you won’t be as tempted to use the first phrase that comes to mind to describe it.
Now you know another trick for making your writing sparkle! If you have questions, send me an email. I’ll answer as best I can. 🙂
(Psst! How many clichés did you find in this article?)