Clichés...Safe To Use?



It's been a while since I've posted about Clichés being a bane to writers, so I thought I'd stroll over to the other side of the literary fence and look at when it's actually okay to use them.

Yes, you heard me--sometimes clichés can be used and not leave you feeling dirty afterwards. Hey would I lie to you?

Clichés...

...in Dialogue:

If Granny May is the kind of gal to tell her young ins, "The early bird gets the worm," on the first wake up call but then screams, "Get down here or I'll tan your hide till it's black and blue!" on the third one, feel free to show it. Just make sure it works--this type of clichéd 'isms' can be done on purpose to show the character's tendency to fall back on these adages. It's part of who they are.

Warnings:

--If all your characters do this, then you've got problems.
--If your hip teen is telling her friends the early bird catches the worm and it isn't tongue-in-cheek, you've got problems.

Bottom line:

To work, clichéd dialogue has to be done with intent and backed by strong characterization. The clichéd 'isms' should feel like natural dialogue, personal to the speaker.


...in Thoughts:

Similar to dialogue, some characters may be predispositioned to 'think' in clichés, perhaps as a result of how/when they grew up, or to show prejudice or bigotry. If they see a street person, they might think of him as a 'no-good bum'. A drug dealer might be 'a waste of good air'. Maybe they observe that the caked-on make up a friend is wearing for ladies night looks like Tammy Faye Baker was her beautician.

Bottom line:

To work, the cliché thoughts need to be a valid part of the characterization, not sloppy/lazy writing.

Warnings:

Your character can think in clichés if it is believable and effective for them to do so. You can't. Make sure your narration/description isn't cliché.

...in Plot:

There is a loose belief that there are seven basic plots that all stories fall under (Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rebirth). Does this mean that ultimately no matter what story we come up with, it's been done before? Some would say Yes. I say go ahead and write the story as uniquely as you can and don't worry about who's done what before you.

Warning:

Keep perspective in check. If you've just finished reading Stephanie Meyer's Twilight books and are frothing to create your own vampire series based on a sect of vampires living at peace with society yet at odds with others of their kind and the heroine is new to town, clumsy and requires constant saving...well, do I really have to tell you to back away from the keyboard?

Bottom line:

It's okay to write about a topic that's been covered before. Just make sure the story is your own.

...in Description:

Clichés can be justified when it's important to get something across to the reader quickly that is difficult to describe accurately. On rare occasions, the best choice may be a familiar wording that's instantly recognizable.

Warning:

This is a last resort only. With some thought, you'll almost always find a fresh way to describe what you need to, and still make it clear to the reader.

Bottom Line:

An example where this might apply would be in conveying a type of technology, a complicated procedure or how something works to the reader. Sometimes a recognizable expression or comparison is more prudent than paragraphs of explanation when the pace of the story or reader understanding is at stake.

Don't be fooled, though. Just because something is hard to describe doesn't mean you should resort to clichés. One example is showing a shiver of fear. This occurs often in books as it's a body's natural reaction to this emotion. We've all read about shivers racing/tingling up the spine, down the spine, along the spine...writers use these images because the sensation is accurate, and creates immediate recognition with the reader.

Even something as overused as this can be freshened by changing the verb (charged, stampeded, trampled), losing the spine reference all together or by using an effective simile that mimics the sensation of something creeping over something else: a spider flashing across exposed skin, ants walking along a branch, etc.

Final Thoughts

If you do feel a cliché is justified, then use your best judgement on what type to use, and what you can get away with. There are levels of cliché, after all. You've got overused phrases like fluttering curtains, rosy cheeks, a flush of pleasure. Then there's the more annoying stupid jocks, the nosy mother-in-law or ugh, the geeky smart girl who, with the aid of a makeover, is suddenly super hot. Worse still are trysts between boss and secretary to spice up a book yet have no bearing on plot or the simple farm boy who is happy with his lot in life suddenly must go on a quest to save the world. Lets face it, some of these should scream, "Run away! Run away!" to the writer and be avoided at all costs.

Can you think of other instances when the use of a cliché (an idea, a phrase, a too-common expression/description) might be okay to use in writing?

19 comments:

Merc said...

Nice article, Angela.

I'm usually okay with an occasional cliche in dialogue or thoughts, like you mention, if they work and aren't overdone. But you have to be careful and make sure the characterzation supports it, not that a cliche is the only characterzation the person has.

Plot/character cliches are a bit more iffy, and it depends on how much of an original twist or fresh spin you can put on it.

Thanks for the thoughts!

Lady Glamis said...

This is a fantastic post! Thank you! I'm definitely marking it for future reference.

Cliche is fun if you're going for cheesy and want to make the reader laugh. Again, it's all in how it's told. :)

Dawn Colclasure said...

This is really good stuff. Glad I happened upon the post.

In my novel, my character's father often uses cliches, but he gets them mixed up and says them wrong. My character pretty much just mentally rolls her eyes over it and thinks, 'That's Dad!' It doesn't happen often, but I think it's a "safe" way to use a cliche. Maybe the reader can at least find the mistake amusing, though I don't use it for the purpose of trying to make the reader laugh. It's just the way the character is.

I've noticed some writers sort of just "gloss over" cliches. Such as "you know that saying they have, about the early bird catching the worm" or "let bygones be the same old bygones they're gonna be" and stuff like that. Still, cliches are definitely something to avoid and to ALWAYS try to be careful with in use.

Great post!

PJ Hoover said...

I love searching for clever comparisons to take the place of cliches and I love even more when I find one!
Great post!

Angela said...

Plot/character cliches are a bit more iffy, and it depends on how much of an original twist or fresh spin you can put on it

I agree 100%. The thing to remember though, is that some plots resurface over and over because that's what readers want. They like quest stories, they want to read about magical artifacts. Kudos who can write well enough that it doesn't matter how many incarnations a plot has seen--they still manage to twist it into something fresh.

Lady G, I think that's another good point--sometimes using a cliche can make the reader laugh. This is especially true of stories for younger readers, and I see it often. Kids connect to humor.

Dawn, thanks for stopping by. I like the idea of the mixed up cliches and addages, because it does bring a new element to the characterization. And too, as you say, it involves the reader because they think about what it's supposed to be.

You're also right about the glossing over of cliches--I've noticed that too.

PJ, I feel that way too. There's nothing better than coming up with a fresh idea or description. I think Becca is very strong in this area, and I always love to see what new imagery she's cooked up when I read her books.

Shelli said...

thx for visiting Angela :)

beth said...

So true--it's all about how you use it! And what you say at the end is important, too--sometimes it's the plot cliche that's more important to focus on than the word cliches.

Christina Farley said...

Ugh. I'm always catching myself using cliches. I don't like them one bit. They are like annoying mosquitos. Great post.

Yunaleska said...

Great, easy to follow advice Angela! Occasionally cliches are ok. I try to avoid them.

Bish Denham said...

"The butler did it!" Guilty as charged.

What? (looks at person tapping her on the shoulder) This isn't that new Mystery Blog?

Oops...sorry.

Great post!

Becca said...

Another great post, Angela. In my experience, what's so hard with cliches is that you don't notice them. They just kind of slip into your writing and you're so used to saying/seeing them that they don't sound like something that should be removed. I guess this is another reason the critique group/partner is key.

Inkblot said...

Whee! Shiny post!

Yes, I agree with Becca that sometimes the hardest thing is noticing them.

Also, I tend to give myself permission to use them in first drafts, else I'm liable to sit paralysed, staring at the screen for ten minutes whilst trying to come up with a better phrasing... O:)

Mary Witzl said...

I find that cliches and redundancies drip right off my pen when I am tired or sleepy. I went through some revisions I'd done at the last minute once and blushed to find at least eight 'nodded her heads' in there... Cliches are great, as you've pointed out, to earmark a person who churns out platitudes, but even that can be overdone -- or rather, it can get irritating.

I think I've managed not to come up with cliched characters. Plot cliches, on the other hand, drive me crazy. I am plagued by them and have to guard against them 24-7. (Oops -- 24-7! -- must be getting sleepy!)

Janet Johnson said...

Great article! Though maybe I need to go look at my MS now . . .

SP Sipal said...

Yes, noticing them is half the battle, then coming up with something fresh to replace them. Sometimes it's just a twist of the wording that is relevant to that character's world.

Thanks for the great reminders!

Matthew MacNish said...

A good writer won't need to use cliches. A great writer can use them anyway, and make it work.

Dawn Simon said...

Excellent post. I also appreciate the post-post comments. :)

Anonymous said...

I cliche I hate is when the supporting characters ask the MC "Oh no! What should we do?"When the answer is completely odvious.
and to end a book, "little did know, their next adventure would be (insert name of next book here)"
And in general, the word suddenly

Linda said...

Enjoyed your post. Lots of great tips, that I will try to keep in mind...sometimes cliches slip into my writing. I suppose they are so much a part of everyday speech, that it's understandable, but I agree we should keep them at a minimum.

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