The Writing Process · Writers

Clichés Must Die. Or Must They?

A wee confession: I have a soft spot for clichés (and before anyone points out that this too is a cliché, I know). They interest me, not least because many of them are just so effortlessly right. A howling wind? That nicely sums up the feral, primal intensity of the wind on the (also-clichéd) dark and stormy night. Stabbing somebody in the back is a vivid image of the painful brutality of betrayal. And thinking outside the box is sometimes the best thing you can possibly do.

At the end of the day... Image credit: Jessie Eastland | Wikimedia Commons
At the end of the day… Image credit: Jessie Eastland | Wikimedia Commons

The problem is that, while clichés might once have been fresh and meaningful, they have been overused to the point that all significance has been sucked out of them. Clichés can block original thought and ideas, and turn us into automatons. This is why we tend to avoid them like the plague (sorry). I wince when I find myself using a cliché, though it’s understandable enough. Clichés and idioms, by their very nature, are often the first things that float to the surface of the mental soup. They’re talismanic in their power, linking us to earlier times, even though those times are now obscure. When did somebody first get the hump, or get taken to the cleaners? Who first spilled the beans, or had their leg pulled?

In everyday conversation, clichés are pretty acceptable. I often conclude my not-infrequent rants with “at the end of the day”, or gravely warn people that “haste makes waste”. Why go to the trouble of finding a completely new way to express something, when there’s a ready-made expression to hand, which everyone understands? Writers, on the other hand, have to be on their guard against clichés. It’s a bitter pill. (Would anyone care to count the clichés in this paragraph?)

"Our Three-Volume Novel at a Glance", from the Punch Almanack of 1885
“Our Three-Volume Novel at a Glance”, from the Punch Almanac of 1885. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons

It’s not so much the cliché itself – something can only be said so many ways, and since when did we fetishize novelty so blindly? – but the way it can rob work of subtlety, nuance, and particularity. Clichés are easy, and they’re lazy. They can prevent you really thinking about, and imaginatively entering into, your fictional world. A writer on autopilot can easily type out something about the hero’s “smouldering eyes” or “flashing eyes”, but what does it actually mean? (It sounds like an ocular condition to me.) Anyone planning to write about the now-almost-obligatory “feisty heroine” might have second thoughts if they realised that “feisty” is actually derived from an Old English word meaning “to break wind”. Even the feistiest heroine, meanwhile, has a tendency to bite her lip and go weak at the knees. And all those sharp intakes of breath might be a symptom of a respiratory disorder; you might want to make an appointment with your doctor.

Sex scenes? All that thrusting and quivering and gasping and moaning is so old hat that it’s long lost the ability to shock or titillate; but then again, the action itself is essentially, and physiologically, so similar from experience to experience that finding new ways to describe it might actually be a considerable challenge. The husky voices commonly associated with sexual passion are understandable when you remember how many microbes might be exchanged during intimate contact; it’s the first symptom of a viral infection, obviously. Afterwards the participants are always “spent” and “sated” (can’t they ever be bored, or dead tired, or gagging for a smoke?).

And then there’s the matter of the characters’ appearance. There are two broad strands of cliché, which interestingly contradict each other. One insists that moral goodness is always signified by physical beauty; the other contends that physical beauty is a sure sign of moral degeneracy, and that only the plain are trustworthy. Unruly hair, which can be a tremendous pain in real life, is often taken as a sign of great moral character in fiction, which is heartening to those of us who suffer from it. Redheaded women – or “flame-haired beauties”, as they are often called – are the feistiest of all feisty heroines. Brunettes are mysterious and sophisticated, and blondes are either softly-spoken sweeties or just plain idiots.

A flame-haired beauty. 'A Little Sea Maiden' by William Henry Margetson. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons
A flame-haired beauty. “A Little Sea Maiden” by William Henry Margetson. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons

You get the picture (sorry). If you find yourself leaning on any of these clichés while you’re writing, it might be time to stop and think it over. Are you really living in your imaginative world, or are you treading water?

But then again … don’t clichés owe their primal power to the fact that they speak simply and recognisably about shared human experiences? We’re all aware of the strange, poignant mixture of resignation and cautious hope of “water under the bridge”, and the sheer relief of calling it a day. We all sense the grim humour involved in popping your clogs or kicking the bucket, which perhaps helps us to deal with the true horror of death. Anyone who’s ever been out on a date, taken part in a competition, or sat an exam will probably have felt butterflies in their stomach. Don’t these clichés actually help us to access shared human emotions?

What do people think?

8 thoughts on “Clichés Must Die. Or Must They?

  1. Ha, ha, Mari, you put it so well. Love those cartoons! It makes sense, really, that as we writers can’t avoid cliche in situation, then equally we can’t get away from it in writing about those situations. But that high-falutin article that I on romance, repetition and the pleasure principle, might be relevant here, even for non genre fiction; sneaking in the odd cliche might be a guilty pleasure (there’s another).

    1. Thank you for the comment, Lucinda! Clichés might indeed be a guilty pleasure, but not in my own writing. In my own writing, they make me want to scream 🙂 The problem is that, when you start thinking about it, you start seeing them everywhere…

  2. Smart post, that also happens to be humorous! I think that clichés can be acceptable in dialog, but should not be relied upon in description. I do think that a very skilled writer could apply a cliché in such a surprising context that that commonplace phrase would suddenly jump out as strange and new. It would take a virtuoso of a writer, though. Perhaps you should give it a try, Mari! I have a feeling you could do it.


    1. Thanks for commenting, Aniko! You’re right – it would be wonderful to see a writer make a cliché seem new and fresh. (Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen just such a thing, though I can’t think of any specific examples just now…) I’d love to give it a try myself, though I fear that your confidence in me may be rather misplaced! 🙂

  3. You were on top of your game with that post, Mari. There’s nothing new under the sun, as they say. But what’s wrong with a time-honoured phrase? It’s heart-warming to read them. Actually, writing a string of clichés makes one sound like a football manager…

    1. All in a day’s work, Paul. Indeed, the odd cliché is fine and dandy, and there’s no point getting down about it. But then again, I always want to give 110%…

      You’re right, I sound like a football manager!

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