The Problem with Cliche
by MW Cook
They’re too big for their britches (Mua ha! Irony!).
You ever notice how many times the word ‘said’ appears in a novel? Or ‘the’? Nope. You haven’t. Haven’t noticed at all. But if a book repeated a different word, like ‘noticed’, you’d notice. You’d notice fast. But you didn’t notice ‘the’ or ‘said’. Because those words are invisible. And that’s a good thing, because it’s kinda hard to write much without those words appearing on nearly every page.
Cliches are invisible. That sucks, because the concepts packed into them are mind-bogglingly powerful.
Armed to the teeth. Give yourself a mental picture there. That dude is seriously armed. His freakin’ teeth have weapons! Too bad it was written in a cliche and you didn’t notice it.
He did it religiously. Religious people are generally unstable. They don’t listen to reason. They refuse to compromise or slow down. Anyone that does something religiously is suddenly an interesting person. Unless you use this tired cliche to describe them. Then they’re boring.
The elephant in the room. Another great mental picture that has lost all of its power just because it’s been used a billion times. Though in The Kite Runner it made an appearance that breathed new life into it. Don’t ask me where, just go buy the book.
What Would Jesus Do. Seriously?! Have you ever read what Jesus did? Don’t freakin’ use this unless we’re talking about someone who devoted their life to spreading love around everyone he met, preached a wild doctrine of love toward enemies and then embraced non-violence so much that he allowed a corrupt religious system to torture him to death all the while forgiving them. Seriously. Just don’t.
On thin ice. Ever been on thin ice? It’s freakin’ scary. But if you read that you won’t be scared. Because it’s a gutted cliche. So there.
Raining cats and dogs. Check out the mental image. Be blown away from that kind of rain. And think of a different way to express it.
Smart as a whip. Whips smart, friends. They smart a lot. Just ask anyone who’s been whipped.
All this to say that cliches are packed with power. Their substance is wonderful and I love having a list of cliches handy just so I can dig into them and feel their depth. But when it comes time to express their meaning, I have to pack them in a different box. Because they’re invisible. It’s like those preachers who use their religious words so often that, suddenly, they become invisible and no one has any clue what they mean by gospel or word or saved.
So walk away from cliches, friends. Avoid them like the plague.
Good examples Matt, and a great way to demonstrate just why cliches are death to vibrant, fresh prose. I’d argue, however, that you CAN use a cliche, if you play with it a little bit, especially in humorous writing – make the elephant in the room perform some unspeakable act on someone just leaving or arriving, arm someone to the chin… whatever. In doing so you both acknowledge that it is a cliche, but poke gentle fun of it…
I think you’re right. If we can make them stand out then they have power. Khaled Hosseini did a great job of it when he referenced the elephant in the room in the talk between the protagonist and Rahim Khan.