January 31, 2010


The use of the cliché can be the dividing line between the sophisticated writer and the amateur.  We've all been there and chances are that most of our early works were laced with cliché after cliché thinking it made us sound clever, when in fact it shows either complete naïvety or just simple laziness. Sometimes clichés are hard to recognise when you are a novice writer, I am still in that phase when I ask myself "is this a cliché?"; some are more obvious than others - but how do you know if you fall into the trap?

A cliché is a phrase, an idea or an expression that has been overused. As standalone sentence there may be nothing wrong with it necessarily and obviously was once an effective evocation to have been used so many times. Most people understand what clichés mean, making them accessible and tempting to use. A universally understood metaphor which has become a cliché might add clarity but it shows a lack of creativity - why express something in a way that was used a 1000 times already instead of finding a new and innovative way to say it? Writers need to remember they are artists and art is about original expression and new points of view. It loses the point about being art when we just recycle an old idea or old expressions.

I suppose it's obvious why clichés are bad, but returning to the important question - how to avoid them? To be honest, I wish I had this answer. I got a short story I gave in for critique returned back to me with line after line underlined with the dreaded word cliché written above. I set about to research as much as I could to find out what defines a cliché and how to recognise them. There are many websites out there with lists of obvious clichés such as: http://suspense.net/whitefish/cliche.htm . Although I think the best way to tackle them is to read your own work with critical eye. Does something look familiar? Is that metaphor something you are proud of - well google it - how many hits does it get? Are you using something pre-packaged to say what you want or can you think of a more original way to express them?

Can clichés be used in dialogue or narration? We use them often in daily life and in conversation. Real life is riddled with clichés, so it would only add a sense of realism to a dialogue in fiction to use them. I think using the odd cliché here and there in dialogue can be excused, but still it's better to not over use them.

It's safest to question every metaphor, expression and idea you've used. But ultimately weeding out the cliché will take experience to recognise and shoot the buggers. I still expect to get back stories critiqued with the dreaded underlining and the word cliché written above it. I just hope it will be less and less as time goes on and soon I will become an expert cliché slayer.

Anyway as Salvador Dalí said: "The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot."


Joy said...

Good post. We all need reminders to stay away from those overused phrases and situations. I'll definitely go check out that link you mentioned.

B Chadwick said...

Well - I agree, and then I don't. I hate cliches in writing as far as when its description and anything that isn't dialogue.

But still, we use a lot of cliches in just conversation, and I haven't seen people with pitchforks and torches chasing anyone for using something like, 'Better the Devil you know' :P

That would be interesting.

As an overall rule - great! We should be creating cliches instead of borrowing them! But I can't help but include them sometimes when the need of the character arises.


Deborah Nagy said...

B - I agree with you to an extent. I think using clichés in dialogue is acceptable since we use them in everyday conversation as it is - it adds a dimension of realism to it. I think there is nothing wrong with clichés in everyday conversation since conversation is casual, we think about conveying what we want to say clearly and not worry about how aesthetic or grammatically correct we are.