The Cliche Cliche: Think Twice Before You Slice

In the war of words, writers frequently target cliches, reaching for that axe of manuscript destruction, lopping off sentences while screaming “die cliche die” so frightfully they’d make an Uruk-Hai proud. Most ferocious of all are the newest recruits, eager to impress the writers they critique with both sharp wit and incisive intellect. And who can blame them? The warnings to avoid cliches like the plague are drilled into them from day one by more experienced writers who themselves have been trained by their own critique experiences to kill cliches wherever they may be found. But is this for the best?

Consider Legolas from the Lord of the Rings:

 

 

Rather than slice lock and limb from his black-maned opponent in the Mines of Moria, Legolas takes aim before adroitly planting an arrow between the goblin’s beady eyes. No mess, no fuss.

As critiquers, we can take a hint from Legolas and think twice, or even thrice, before we admonish someone for using a cliche. The first question to ask ourselves is if the author is even at the stage of revision where they care about cliches. Many authors divide their writing into two stages, focusing first on the general construction of the story (plot, pacing, character development) and saving the nitpicks (like cliche words) for later. A  manuscript in its early stages benefits more from critical attention to story-level problems because these are the make-or-break issues, and all the cliche-free prose in the world won’t make for a compelling read.

Suppose the manuscript is ready for nitpicking. There are still a few things to consider before slashing that sentence. Cliches aren’t cliche to everyone. An older reader has a larger catalog of cliches in their mind than a young reader, so therefore stories for adult audiences should be more concerned about cliches than those for young audiences. Similarly, what was cliche twenty years ago may not be cliche today, and what we might think is cliche may not be cliche to most people.

Here’s an exercise that illustrates the point. A visit to ClicheFinder allows us to randomly select ten cliches from a database and list them. Here is an example:

1. In the heat of the night
2. Cudgel your brains
3. All over the place like a dogs breakfast
4. Look what the cat dragged in
5. A submarine with screen doors
6. Win's one's spurs
7. Paying lip service
8. Return to the fold
9. The game is not worth the candle
10. He's like school in the summer ...No class

How many of these cliches have you heard before? Unless you are remarkably well-read, I doubt you’ve heard all of them, and that means to you, they aren’t all cliche. Speaking for myself, I’ve only heard of 1,4,7 and 8.

Suppose we’ve asked ourselves all these questions and still think we’ve identified a cliche. Is the cliche part of dialog? People speak in cliches all the time because it quickly communicates ideas through a shared understanding of the cliche’s meaning. One of many cliches I’ve used earlier in this piece was ‘make-or-break’. Sure, I could’ve said ‘problems with plot, character, and pacing can render a reader completely disinterested in your story’, but ‘make-or-break’ is more efficient.

If we’ve asked ourselves all these questions and still think we need to strike out the cliche, then we can knock that arrow, pull that bowstring, and let our cliche-hunting fury fly because like Legolas, our aim will be true.

What if we’re on the receiving end of the critique? We can’t really control what our critique partners say, nor do we want to. As critique recipients, we should always seriously consider comments given to us, but we must also feel free to reject them. A first reader of one my stories once declared that it was cliche to use the word ‘blared’ to describe a shock jock’s voice coming from a radio. I’d never heard anyone else say that, and none of the other readers flagged the word in the manuscript. More importantly, from the point of view of the protagonist who found the shock jock’s words offensive, blared was exactly the right verb to use to describe the protagonists attitude toward what he’d heard. So I ignored the comment and moved on. The editors of Stupefying Stories didn’t seem to mind the word “blared” either, because they bought the story.

Which of the ten cliches above have you heard before? Let’s determine by group consensus which of these aren’t cliche at all. Comment below!

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6 Comments

  1. Lindy Moone says:

    I love cliches. Context, quantity and creativity are all that matters. Cliches are like troll dolls. Just one on your desk? Tacky. A small collection? Kitsch. Three hundred and eight-four supporting a coffee table? Modern art. At least to some folks.

    Then again, I like puns, too. So, if you can pull a pun out of a cliche, that’s even better. One of my college etchings was entitled “For Whom the Bell Trolls”. (It was of a troll with a brass bell around its neck. The troll hung from the ceiling on a rope, and we would swing it around to the great amusement of the cat.) Even the snottiest of my fellow art students couldn’t hide their smiles on critique day. (Idiots.) Someday, that etching will adorn the cover of a collection of tacky, kitschy, artistic short stories! And all will be right with the world!

    • Lindy Moone says:

      Oops: eightY-four. Eight-four is just tacky. And you might consider moderating your first-time commenters. Mine got through right away. What were you thinking? Not sure I want to be part of something that would let me in…

      • Lindy Moone says:

        Oh, and to answer your question: 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8. (Although not necessarily in exactly the same form you’ve used.)

      • A.A. Leil says:

        I was thinking my automatic post and language filters would block anyone/thing I didn’t want posting (spammers, bots, etc). I give the humans the benefit of the doubt. :) Eternal optimist and all that.

        • Louisa says:

          That’s a smart answer to a tricky qutesion

  2. Martin Vavpotic says:

    I think people worry too much about cliches in this day and age (see, there’s one right there). Cliches became cliches because they were used often. That happened because they were useful. Also, I think it’s important to separate a phrase from a cliche. I think that list has more phrases than cliches. Phrases are expected in a dialogue, we use them in our daily lives all the time. Fail to use them and the reader might find the dialogue too synthetic.

    I think it’s fine to use cliches, as long as a single phrase is not used too often in the same work. Unless you have a character who is annoying exactly because they use one phrase over and over. I remember a child story where a certain bee kept saying one phrase to make things he says sound more important: “An old bee proverb says…” That was used at least five times per story and there were quite many stories about that bee. But the point was that bee was bookish, introverted and not very adventurous. So over-using a phrase came in just the right way.

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