Using Clichés


Using Clichés

Clichés. There should be a bar sinister across them, right? We’re never never supposed to use them. I don’t know on which stone tablet it is written but seems like an immutable rule.

But I use them all the time (cf. stone tablet above) and I can’t even get excited about it.

For one thing, it’s a way to capture a thought or a moment in a way which is easier to identify with. I mean, I could have written: I don’t know from what mystic time or place the immutability is derived.  Or some such. But stone tablet seems so much more straightforward.

It also promotes a more informal relationship between you and your reader, as in this blog. And applies to a fictional character. Clichés can be part of a speech pattern to convey a more relaxed or unceremonious persona.

So, I don’t think they’re all bad. At least, not word clichés.

Clichés of thought

But where I can get excited are clichéd thoughts.

There are some ideas which are important to your story. You want to portray your hero as, well, heroic. So, first and always, his actions need to show this quality. But, as I’ve mentioned, as the narrator, you can bolster the action. But if you call him brave as a lion, the reader’s eyes are likely to slip right past this description because it is so familiar.

If the idea is important, then reach for unique, specific and even beautiful words that make arresting reading and imbed the quality in the reader’s mind.

What comes to mind is the haunting description Isak Dinesen wrote in Out of Africa of the grave of her lover Denys Finch Hatton.

…many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on Finch Hatton’s grave. A lion and a lioness have come there and stood or lain on the grave for a long time. After you went away, the ground around the grave was leveled out into a sort of terrace. I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions. From there, they have a view over the plain and the cattle and game on it. Denys will like that. I must remember to tell him.

The problem is that this quote is from the movie and I have lost my copy of the book which I am sure included something like: “Nelson on his column could not have had a more fitting memorial.” If I am right—and even it is just the one paragraph above—this is a fine allusion to his bravery.

If the idea is important to the story, then put the time into remarkable phrasing.

(I know it takes longer to write. Stop it.)

Ensuring your central ideas are captured memorably will go a long way to avoiding clichéd work and stories which really are anathema.

Okay, there are some you probably shouldn’t use

So, after being all doctrinaire about using clichés whenever I please, I do accept that there are some clichés so shopworn that they no longer convey much meaning. Like bright as a button, fit as a fiddle, or don’t cry over spilt milk. Huffpost has a further list.

Oh yes, and of course, you really must avoid clichéd words and thoughts if the beauty of the language is your main shtick (sorry).