Ah, cliché. That old unwanted friend who turns up at your party, but you’ve known them forever and it’s too much effort to get them to leave.
Terry Pratchett summarised it best:
Clichés are the hammer and screwdriver in the toolbox of communication.
Read any ‘how to write’ guide and they’ll tell you that clichés should be avoided like the plague.
See what I did there? Expect a few more. In fact, let’s get it out of the way and give you twelve rather convoluted clichés from the BBC television series Yes, Prime Minister:
Sir Desmond Glazebrook: City’s a funny place, you know, Prime Minister. If you spill the beans you open up a whole can of worms. I mean, how can you let sleeping dogs lie if you let the cat out of the bag? Bring in a new broom and if you’re not very careful you find you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. If you change horses in the middle of the stream, next thing you know you’re up the creek without a paddle.
James Hacker: And then the balloon goes up.
Sir Desmond Glazebrook: Obviously. They hit you for six. An own goal in fact.
This brief excerpt is actually a brilliant example of character-defining dialogue. I don’t need to tell you anything about Sir Desmond, you know who he is. A stuffed shirt. An empty suit. A moron, in fact. In this case, the use of clichés has worked wonders. And even after all these years, it still makes me laugh every time.
So, should we just ditch all clichés written in the narrative voice? Or in our blogs, and reserve them only for characters who need them for some plot or character significant reason?
Well, I’m not sure. There’s an author I love but who creates the most bizarre similes that they entirely pull me out of the story. They force me to pause and ponder the insane image. I won’t say it spoils his stories, but I’m an unforgiving reader of anyone who pulls me out of a book; even if that person is the author. I really, really wouldn’t have minded if his heart beat like a drum, rather than his heart beat like the fists of a drunken Chelsea husband on the locked door of abandoned off-license. Particularly if it has nothing to do with the story.
On the other hand, if, at the end of the day, another good as gold teenager bites her lip as a single tear rolls down her cheek, determined to keep her chin up as she vanishes into thin air, I’ll scream.
The point is there are three types of readers. First, one who’s never seen the offending hackneyed phrase before. It’ll either go over their head, or they’ll fall in love with it, repeating it every day until everyone else hates it. For example, every ten year old.
Then there’s the reader who recognises the cliché and passes by it. Nothing lost, nothing gained; just a throwaway sentence which conveyed the point but didn’t give us anything new. That probably fits the bill for most of us.
Finally, there’s the avid or professional reader who’s read every cliché so many times they’re absolutely sick of it. This probably covers every agent and editor in the world. Not great, given these people are the gate-guardians between you and being published.
Writing in clichés is comfortable and chatty. But they’re easy. You’re not showing off your skills as a writer and not giving readers anything new. Every cliché started life from nothing, penned by a writer who accidentally creates a phrase which becomes so well known, it becomes commonplace. Shakespeare is the prime example of this, as he is for so many things. But even ‘bull in a china shop’ only goes back to 1834.
So challenge yourself to ditch the clichéd and try something new. Maybe you’ll hit the mark, maybe you won’t. But you’ll never be accused of going the easy, boring route. Or the well-trodden path… 🙂
What clichés are you sick of? How do you get around using the same old phrase again and again? Let us know!