I Love a Cliché

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.

26 Responses to “I Love a Cliché”

  1. Maryon 07 Jan 2009 at 9:39 pm

    Respect your cliches. Nothing ever got to be a cliche without something going for it, because to be a cliche, it had to be used over and over and over and over again — and nothing was ever used like that without something going for it.

  2. Marie Brennanon 08 Jan 2009 at 1:45 am

    I’m pretty much with you all the way. I’ve read authors who are clearly trying to avoid using standard phrases, with the result that their prose ends up so self-conscious it keeps kicking me out of the story; in cases like that, I’d prefer to see less prose-level originality, if it meant the sentences wouldn’t keep calling attention to themselves. And the stories that are really dense on that front are slow for me to get through, too. Maybe if I were more of a poetry reader, I’d be more on board with that style, but my personal preference definitely veers in the direction of transparency of prose.

  3. Asakiyumeon 08 Jan 2009 at 7:38 am

    I feel the same way about any stylistic item we’re told to avoid, whether it’s the passive voice, too many adverbs, or telling when we should be showing. Too much passive voice may be a bad thing, but sometimes it’s just what you need–same with a well-placed adverb, and, sometimes, a little bit of tell. And just because over-reliance on those items may result in bad writing doesn’t mean that a complete lack of them will guarantee good writing… on the contrary, it’s more likely to mean tortured writing.

  4. Mark Tiedemannon 08 Jan 2009 at 10:50 am

    I had Delany as a teacher and he has a good rant on cliche. He said cliches are evil because they basically take up space where something meaningful could be said. “Wasteful of time, energy, attention, brain cells, and utterly uncontributive.”

    I think that’s pushing things a bit too far, personally, but it was his intention to shock us and force us to examine our use of cliche.

    Now, I don’t think he was nearly so concerned about cliched phrases as he was about cliched story elements or character traits. But one piece of advice he gave was this: write your sentences in such a way that they never stabilize.

    I’m frankly still trying to come to grips with that, but I think I know what he means—write in such a way that the reader cannot skip over the sentence and assume its meaning by reference to a standard image.

    Now, doing that is another matter.

  5. Lois Tiltonon 08 Jan 2009 at 11:34 am

    There is a fascinating study about highly-skilled typists – when copying text that is displayed at a controlled rate, they type faster than the text appears. They anticipate the text.

    This is because sentences tend to be pre-structured; we can often tell what the sentence will say before we read it, because we recognize the sentence template being used by the writer.

    This is what I believe Delany means: why write a sentence that the reader can finish herself, a sentence that provides nothing that the reader doesn’t already have?

  6. Deb Son 08 Jan 2009 at 11:55 am

    “I’d prefer to see less prose-level originality, if it meant the sentences wouldn’t keep calling attention to themselves.”

    I’m with Marie on that. I picked up a book recently, read the first page and said, “Wow, this guy can really turn a phrase.” And he could, and did…all the time. I was stopping every other sentence to ooh and ah over the wonderful prose and ponder the evocative descriptions. Spiced in at the proper moments, the “ooh and ah” bits could have had real impact, instead the writing smothered the story.
    So clichés…? “Everything in moderation,” I guess :)

  7. Mark Tiedemannon 08 Jan 2009 at 12:08 pm


    I like that take on it. It synchs up with much of what Delany himself has written.

    Part of where some of this may come from with Delany is his (according to him) profound dyslexia, which would make it more rewarding for him to read sentences that can’t be predicted and therefore misread. But that’s a guess on my part.

    Untraditional structure, though, would certainly cause people to think a bit more about what they’d just read.

  8. Madeleine Robinson 08 Jan 2009 at 12:46 pm

    I think this veers into reading style, also–that part of the writer/reader compact that the reader brings to it. Some readers can’t stand untraditional structure because they see it as coming between them and the story. Others love it because it deepens and enriches the reading experience.

    Lois–when I’ve had typing jobs, I’m often one of those “finish the sentence before I get to the end” workers. Although, frequently, I’d be editing as I went, trying to eke out the actual meaning intended by the writer…

  9. James Engeon 08 Jan 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Some people do need to learn the gentle art of getting on with it. If a cliché or twelve smooths the path, so be it. (Especially in a first draft. Something more sparkly may occur to the writer in revision.)

  10. Sherwoodon 08 Jan 2009 at 3:27 pm

    In first drafts, just get the words down. Cliches are great placeholders. But I think the time to get rid of them is when there’s a danger of a character, or moment, conveying xerox effect–in other words, at the height of drama, if the hero’s eyes pierce to the very core of the heroine’s being,, that’s such a standard phrase the emotion becomes a marker in place of emotion, rather than evoking a real response–at least in me.

    The second sort of cliche to watch for is something that arose out of a culture non-represented in your piece. If your culture is post printed book (or preliterate) having characters exchange looks that ‘spoke volumes’ tosses the observant reader out of the story. ‘They have volumes?’

    On the third tentacle, some cliches are unintentionally funny. “Her eyes stayed glued to the TV…” erk.

  11. Mark Tiedemannon 08 Jan 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Damon Knight used to mercilessly point those sorts out, Sherwood.

    “He lifted his eyes from the floor..” (Thwook thwook!)

    “She tore her gaze from him. (Rrrrriiiiiiipppp!)

    His jaw dropped. (breaking the toes of his left foot when it landed.)

  12. Lois Tiltonon 08 Jan 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Dave Langford features a few of these every month in his Thog feature in ANSIBLE.

  13. […] already watched another character see, and has the same reaction to it. Madeleine Robins has a post up at DeepGenre in which she asserts that sometimes, cliches are the way to go: “[Y]ou have to give the […]

  14. Madeleine Robinson 08 Jan 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Damon also stood up at Clarion, flapped his hands energetically upward, and said “‘He threw his hands into the air’ only works if your character has detachable hands.”

  15. Stacyon 09 Jan 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Sherwood – thanks for the mention of the non-culture-appropriate cliche. I seem to be noticing them more and more. I recently read a book I really enjoyed, except for the line quipping about a “homicidal hat trick” when there was no hockey or three cornered hats in existance in the world. All I could think was “Where was the editor???”

  16. Anjaon 09 Jan 2009 at 2:52 pm

    > “He lifted his eyes from the floor..” (Thwook thwook!)

    > “She tore her gaze from him. (Rrrrriiiiiiipppp!)

    > His jaw dropped. (breaking the toes of his left foot when it landed.)

    Personally, I like #2 and #3. I mean, there’s such a thing as idiomatic language. Where’s the line between idioms and cliché? I find that hard to define (and I believe there’s room for personal taste.) What about: The smile froze on her face? OR: I snatched my hand away? What, had it come off? a literal-minded person might ask.

    P.S. Another example of non-appropriate idiom: In the T.V. series Robin Hood (the one starring Richard Armitage as Guy de Gisborne), Robin says, “I brokered a deal.” Haha.

  17. Kate Elliotton 09 Jan 2009 at 3:58 pm

    I’m so glad you wrote this, Mad!!!

    Lois, that’s quite interesting about the typists, especially with reference to the Delaney comment that Mark mentions.

    I think Anja brings up an interesting question about idiom and, indeed, metaphor. As a reader, I don’t have a problem with idiomatic expressions if they’re used sparingly and in places where their intent is clear.

  18. Sherwoodon 09 Jan 2009 at 10:27 pm

    Yeah, like Anja, I have no problem with ‘jaw dropped’ or throwing hands in the air–people actually do those things. But the glued eyes, not so good a visual image.

  19. Kate Elliotton 09 Jan 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Unless one has pinkeye, in which case one’s eyes do kind of feel glued shut. Ugh. But I guess that’s a good example of being very careful about using images and idioms.

  20. Madeleine Robinson 10 Jan 2009 at 12:49 am

    Unless one has pinkeye, in which case one’s eyes do kind of feel glued shut.

    I now know that honey was a favored medieval cure for pinkeye. What’s more, unlike some of the things that were prescribed in those days, it actually works. If you can get past the idea of putting a dollop of honey in your eye.

  21. Kate Elliotton 10 Jan 2009 at 1:51 am

    Huh. Honey. I am feeling the urge to put someone with pinkeye in a book just to use that.

  22. Madeleine Robinson 10 Jan 2009 at 12:33 pm

    Heh. My work here is done.

  23. jeanon 10 Jan 2009 at 5:10 pm

    Cliche versus over-writing is a false choice. You don’t need one or the other, unless it’s a deliberate effect. Unwanted cliches can be just dropped. No need to substitute something clever.

    For example: It was plain.

  24. Madeleine Robinson 11 Jan 2009 at 5:07 pm

    Sometimes the rhythm of the sentence, the scene, something seems to require (at least in first draft) an image to intensify “it was plain.” In second draft I might take out whatever I’d put and go with the simpler sentence. What I was talking about, really, was about getting sidetracked by self-consciousness during the first burst of putting stuff on paper.

  25. Ira Naymanon 29 May 2009 at 11:45 pm

    The problem with cliches is that they are a refuge of poor writers, people who do not have either the time or ability to find an original way of saying what they mean. Employing some cliches in a work is probably inevitable (they are a shortcut to meaning that is shared by writer and reader, so they do have their uses), but using too many too often will lead the reader to have a poorer opinion of the writer.

    I would like to demur from the sense that I get from most posters to this thread that transparency in writing and “getting on” with the story is the most important thing. Different readers read for different literary qualities, and even the same reader can enjoy different qualities in varied types of literature. Sure, plot is important. However, reading somebody who plays the language like a musical instrument can also be very satisfying.

    One of my favourite writers is Thomas Pynchon (only marginally science fiction, but still…). I love being able to lose myself in his sentences, and, frankly, am in awe of the way he uses language.

    One final thought: I think it’s correct to teach students new to writing to avoid cliches, as well as some of the other literary truisms that have been mentioned in this thread. As I tell my students: you need to master the rules before you can decide how to effectively break them.

  26. […] DeepGenre makes an interesting observation in that: […]

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