Madeleine Robins January 6th, 2009
A few weeks ago Kate Elliott posted a valuable piece somewhere else about clichés, and in the course of the discussion she recommended I enlarge upon the comments I made there. One of the hazards of encroaching age is that I no longer remember where the discussion was, only that it was lively and interesting: you woulda loved it. And now that the holidays are over and I have two brain cells to rub together, I’ve come here to outline what I was trying to say in that post.
One of the standard Words of Advice that writers–new and old–get, is to avoid clichés. The advice itself is rather a cliché but, like all clichés, it is based in truth, and it would be wrong to reflexively ignore it.
But. There’s always a but. I think cliché has its place, for both the writer and the reader. I’ll grant that over-reliance on cliché is not only a problem on its own, but often signals a hoard of other problems, of which lack of originality is only the first. And we all want to be original, don’t we? Except when the pursuit of originality starts driving the whole process of writing to the detriment of the work….
Lemme ‘splain. I’m sitting out in my chilly little office, trying to get a few thousand words written before I go on to my next project (that would be dinner). I want to say that something my hero has encountered was simply obvious: plain as day, plain as the nose on his face, plain as black and white. Except that I don’t want to use any of those phrases because they’re, like, clichéd. So instead I stop to figure out a better, more elegant, more original way of getting across the same idea. By the time I’ve done so, then fiddled with it for another while because it sounds forced and like I’m trying too hard, I’ve been fiddling for half an hour and lost the momentum of my story.
In this case I should have just written “plain as day” and kept moving on, like a shark, swim-or-die. There’s always the opportunity to come back and fix it later. And unless every sentence includes a “plain as day” or “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” it’s probably not going to kill anyone, even if you do miss eliminating this one cliché. If everything else in the story is working the way it should–the characters are people, the plotline is believable, the setting vivid and compelling–a cliché here and there not only doesn’t hamper, but may help your process.
As for the readers? I don’t like stumbling over trite images and clichés any more than anyone else. If I notice them, that is. I don’t tend to notice them if they’re not used too often, and if everything else is working as it should. What do I notice? I’ll tell you one thing that will stop me, if you’ll pardon the cliché, dead in my tracks: too much damned originality.
By which I mean the sort of pained cleverness that feels more like auctorial “lookit! lookame!” behavior than thoughtful writing. Too much emphasis on an original style, without a real understanding of what an original style might be, can cause this. Trying to come up with a new! fresh! image to the detriment of common sense can also stop me (I am reminded of a much-published, much accomplished writer who, in a draft of a book I was reading, said something about a waitress in a tight uniform–a uniform that “truncated” her full breasts. Owww. He changed it). When I have to work too hard, as a reader, to justify a phrase the author has used, something is wrong.
One of the aims of good writing is not to get in the way of the reader. Good writing sets up a world, a mood, a series of expectations for the reader, and that can be done with new turns of speech, rhetorical tricks, prose as dense and rich as fruitcake. But even voices which are, in service of worldbuilding, theme, or style, ornate, flowery or dense, should not stop the reader cold. Original imagery works best when you read a sentence and think “I’d never thought about it, but that’s it, exactly!”
More, particularly when your style is dense and rich as fruitcake: you have to give the reader a moment to rest from time to time. Simply using tried shorthand for an image or action can provide the reader that breathing space, even in the most beautifully written prose.
So yes, you want to avoid cliché in your writing. Except when you don’t. Clear as mud? Always glad to help.