The Cliché Queen
My critiquing group calls me the cliché queen. Not because I use clichés, but because I spot them and flag them. If I happen to ignore one, someone always quips, “I’m surprised that Sandi didn’t find it.” For the most part, I do find them but I let some of them slide.
Why? Well, it gets a little embarrassing when I’m always the one who points them out. I admitted this at one meeting and the whole group rushed to reassure me. “But we depend on you to notice them,” someone said, and the rest agreed.
So why is it important? If a cliché is a perfect way to describe something, you should use it, right? But the thing is, you’re using someone else’s wording.
As a creative person, why wouldn’t you want your own, fresh wording? Using someone else’s is a bit like copying a friend’s hairstyle that she’s worn for years. It defines her but…
We’re writers. Unique images and language are expected. Not just by publishers and editors, but also by discerning readers.
Where Do Clichés Come From?
Samuel Goldwyn said, “Let's have some new clichés.” I love this because any new comparison or description, if used often enough and by enough people, will eventually turn into a cliché. The trick is to be the one who uses it first.
I once heard another quote that said: Clichés are the “desperately tired and overused husk of somebody’s originality.” I can’t credit the writer who said it, because I can’t remember who it was. So I will just call this person The Sage.
Sage is right—as writers, we don’t want to be seen as unimaginative. Also, while some clichés make sense (for example: the calm before the storm), others only made sense during the era when they were created, or have never made sense at all. For instance, a true blue friend. Why blue?
“Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water” made sense in the days when an entire family used the same bath water and the baby was the last one to bathe. At the time, it was a clever way to tell someone to consider the possibilities and not reject everything. Now, for people who know nothing about this custom, it seems nonsensical.
Common clichés are spoken so often that they have lost all meaning: fit as a fiddle; happy as a lark; mad as a wet hen. Few people would picture a fiddle, a lark, or a wet hen when they recite these comparisons. The original images have been lost through endless repetition.
Is There a Good Time to Use a Cliché?
I think so. Mostly in dialogue. In order to create authentic dialogue, we listen to conversations. People speak in clichés every day.
I would check with Sage on this, if I could remember who he or she is. But my memory’s full of holes. Oops! Sorry.
Also, there are times when the best way to convey an idea/meaning/description is through a cliché. I have seen many writers use a clichéd phrase but add something to the beginning or the end so it’s more unique. For instance, writing that "It looked like something the dog dragged in" then adding "and chewed on for hours."
However, in my opinion there’s never a good time for clichéd characters. I’m sure that Sage would back me up on this if...well, you know. We want our characters to be multi-layered, complex and unpredictable. No stereotypes.
The clichéd timid, mousy librarian with no hope of romance would be much more interesting if she went clubbing after work, flirted outrageously, and wore tight jeans, thigh-high boots and skimpy blouses. That’s a character. Give her a sarcastic wit and a dark secret and I’m hooked.
What about stock characters? Yes, they’re definitely necessary. Yet even a character who only makes a brief appearance can have something quirky that creates an image in the reader’s mind. The waiter serving our main characters may not have any lines, but he could be clumsy and bump into chairs and tables as he enters and exits the scene.
A Love Affair
The best and most successful writers I know are in love with language. Finding the perfect words to create fresh images and characters is bliss. As a reader, I’m thrilled by their creations and their stories dance off the page.
It can be frustrating work. Sometimes l feel like I’ve been staring at my flashing cursor for hours as I’ve tried to come up with the best words. Clichés move your writing along faster, but they won’t leave your readers with long-lasting images.
Isn’t that what we want? When a reader finishes our stories and novels, we don’t want our work to be instantly forgotten. We want certain characters and descriptions to sink into a reader’s mind and settle in for an extended stay.
I still remember one image that Alice Munroe created. “Her teeth were crowded to the front of her mouth as if they were looking for an argument.” Although I couldn’t climb to Alice’s level, her writing inspires me to try harder.
My stance on clichés is just my opinion, of course. There are people who take the other side, who say that a phrase becomes a cliché because it’s the perfect image or comparison. Good point.
I congratulate the writer for coming up with a captivating phrase that caught on and came into everyday use. For me, though, I want to create my own phrase. Who knows? Someday it might become a cliché too.