Janet Sumner Johnson
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Conquering Clichés, Part 4: Using Them . . . or Not

Feb

04, 2011 |

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As writers, we are told so often to “Avoid Clichés,” that the warning has pretty much become a cliché itself. Ah, the irony. In the last post in this series, we discussed several reasons to cut clichés, but it’s good to note that there are moments when clichés can work.

I can think of two valid reasons for using them:

1. Establishing a Character.

People speak in clichés. It’s a natural thing. While I don’t think that means you should fill your characters’ dialogue with clichés, you might use them to establish a type of character.

You get the idea. The clichés they use build their character—show us who they are—place them in the world of your book. Still, the clichés should be used responsibly. Be sure they build up your character, rather than pull the character into the quagmire of overuse.

2. As Irony or Humor.

When you are using a cliché with the specific purpose of mocking it, I think it works. Clichés can be a lot of fun to play with. And because they are so well known (you know, from being overused), they make good joke bait.

For example, in Sorcerer’s Apprentice (you have seen this movie, haven’t you?), they use a plot cliché (namely Jedi mind-control) so the bad guy can get the information he needs. So just when I’m thinking, Huh. That reminds me an awful lot of Star Wars, his apprentice, the comedic sidekick, waves his hand and says in a mock-serious voice, “These are not the droids you are looking for.” Okay, so maybe you have to see it, but it totally worked. Because they made a mockery of the cliché, I not only forgave it, but now think it’s one of the best parts of the movie.

A word of caution: even though clichés may work in such situations, we need to be careful not to overdo it. What is funny once can fall flat the second or third time.

To end this series, I want to recognize that clearing out clichés that have crept into our writing is never easy. It takes work and effort. It often requires thinking outside the box. One of the best resources I know of to help your mind envision the possibilities is The Bookshelf Muse.

On the sidebar of their blog, you will find a wonderful assortment of Thesauruses: Setting Thesaurus; Emotion Thesaurus; Colors, Textures and Shape Thesaurus; and a Symbolism Thesaurus. Angela and Becca are nothing if not thorough, and they are constantly adding entries. I highly recommend you visit them for help with conquering clichés.

Again, I don’t claim to be an expert. Hearing others’ opinions and ideas is always good. So in the comments, please feel free to share other situations where you think using a cliché would work, other resources you know of to help conquer clichés, and any differing view you may have.

If you missed the first 3 parts, feel free to follow the links:

Conquering Clichés, Part 1: Introduction
Conquering Clichés, Part 2: Ways to be Cliché
Conquering Clichés, Part 3: Why We are Cautioned Against Them
Conquering Clichés, Part 4: Using Them . . . or Not

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Conquering Clichés, Part 3: Why We are Cautioned Against Them

Jan

21, 2011 |

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So now we know what clichés are. We can recognize them in their various forms. We also know that we shouldn’t use them.

But why? If they say exactly what we want to say, why not use them?

Here is what I came up with:

1. Clichés are boring.

By definition, clichés are overused. We’ve seen them before (WAY too many times). And frankly, we, as readers, are just plain tired of reading them. This applies especially to plot clichés (see part 2). After the first time, you can only take so many mistreated orphans who suddenly discover they have magical abilities, and thus thwart their evil relatives. And if you need a laugh and aren’t sure what other plot clichés might exist, check out this site.

Furthermore, when a character’s heart is pounding all the time (another of my weaknesses), you start to wonder if they’re going to have a heart attack.

2. Clichés suggest laziness.

I have done the stare-at-the-computer-trying-to-come-up-with-the-perfect-description thing. It stinks. A lot. It’s so much easier to use a pre-fabbed phrase that really does say what you want. But it’s never as effective. Likely it’s not even your voice. Really, it’s just lazy. (Note: I TOTALLY allow myself to use clichés on a first draft . . . just don’t let them stay. . . unless they should.)

3. Clichés can be a red flag for that agent or editor you’re hoping to impress.

Okay, I’m no agent or editor, but if I saw as many projects as they do on a daily basis, I might just be looking for a  reason to reject a few. You know, those pesky typos, queries addressed to Mr. instead of Ms., an abundance of clichés in the writing . . . You read enough, and I bet those clichés stand out like sore thumbs. 😉

4. Clichés are often word padding.

Sometimes, we’re trying to dress up our writing and unawares, those clichés sneak in. They add to our wordiness without adding to the meaning.

For example: Michael improved by leaps and bounds.

Do we really need it? No. Michael improved. Period.

5. Clichés don’t always mean what you think they mean.

This is particularly in reference to those proverb and idiom clichés (see part 2). These phrases are so common, and such a part of our culture, we don’t stop to question the meaning (which may not be the same for everyone).

In the Cliché Dictionary (Ammer, Christine, The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2001.), the phrase “eat one’s heart out” is defined as “worrying excessively.” Another definition that she cites almost as an afterthought is “doesn’t that make you jealous.” Uh, what? I had never heard that first definition. I’ve always seen it as the second. Maybe I’ve been misunderstanding people for years!

And I had to have a friend explain “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” That never made sense to me. Because if you have your cake, why can’t you eat it? It’s there for the taking right? (Definitely a duh moment.)

The point is, the definitions attached to these things aren’t necessarily the same for everyone. You may think you are expressing your ideas perfectly, while your reader is all kinds of confused.

Again, I don’t think all clichés should be banned. But consider these reasons for cutting them from your writing. Are they really pulling their weight? Are they doing what you intend for them to do? Are they improving your work or making it boring? Is the meaning clear?

In Part 4, I’ll talk about when cliche’s work, and how you can fix them when they don’t. And if you missed the first 2 parts, feel free to follow the links:

Conquering Clichés, Part 1: Introduction
Conquering Clichés, Part 2: Ways to be Cliché
Conquering Clichés, Part 3: Why We are Cautioned Against Them
Conquering Clichés, Part 4: Using Them . . . or Not

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Conquering Clichés, Part 2: Ways to be Cliché

Jan

12, 2011 |

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I only intended one post on clichés, but in writing it, there was so much information I had to break it up:

Conquering Clichés, Part 1: Introduction
Conquering Clichés, Part 2: Ways to be Cliché
Conquering Clichés, Part 3: Why We are Cautioned Against Them
Conquering Clichés, Part 4: Using Them . . . or Not

The whole idea of clichés fascinates me! Basically, someone expressed an idea in such a unique, amazing, succinct way that everyone jumped on the bandwagon to use it. And *POOF*, suddenly it’s not so unique. Just another overused expression that may or may not mean what you think it means.

I found a cliché dictionary1 at the library that claims over 3,500 clichés! While I’d never heard some of them before, there were more that I knew. Perhaps I was influenced by my mom who had a saying for every situation, but I think part of why clichés sneak so easily into our writing is because we all naturally use them in speech without even realizing we’re doing it.

Learning to recognize clichés is the first step to conquering them—meaning, using them to your advantage rather than vice versa. In this post, I simply want to lay out a few examples of clichés.

Betty Kirkpatrick, in her book on clichés2 attempts to categorize them, which I find extremely useful. Here are some of her categories with my attempt to explain them: 

Simile Clichés: All those overused comparisons (often using ‘like’ or ‘as’)

Proverb Clichés: Commonly known/used sayings or expressions, often giving advice

Idiom Clichés: (Akin to proverb clichés.) Overused expressions where the meaning does not equal the sum of the parts (i.e. the meaning is figurative instead of literal).

Allusion Clichés: An overused phrase that alludes/refers to an idea or story

Doublet Clichés: Two words joined by ‘and’ WAY too often

Euphemism Clichés: Overused phrases that refer to “unmentionables”

And I wanted to add a few categories that seem to flood my life: 

Plot Clichés: Overused plot devices

Character Clichés: Those characters who show up all too often

Parent Clichés: All those things your parents said that you swore you would never say to your own kids

Personal Clichés: Here you have to dig deep in your own life. What is that favorite expression (or four) you keep using? For writing, critique partners can help ferret them out. For life, a close friend probably knows best.

Hopefully this gives you a good idea of the types of clichés that exist, and the various places they can sneak into. While I’ll say more on this in Part 4, I don’t think we should learn about clichés to ban them from our speech and writing.

Rather, by understanding them and recognizing them, we are in control of the meaning of our words. We need to know what clichés are to use (or not use) them in an effective manner.

And as G.I. Joe would say (in a now extremely clichéd expression), “and knowing is half the battle!”

WORKS CITED

1. Ammer, Christine, The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2001.

2. Kirkpatrick, Betty, Clichés: Over 1500 Phrases Explored and Explained, n.p.: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.

P.S. So there were 16 clichés in my first post, which no one guessed exactly, but being the magnanimous person I am 😉 R. Garrett Wilson, was the closest with 14 as his official guess, but 15 suspected clichés. So I hereby declare him to be the winner of a candy bar of his choice. Congrats Garrett!

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Conquering Clichés, Part 1

Jan

07, 2011 |

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It was a dark and stormy night. My heart pounded as I prepared to write this post. I got butterflies in my stomach, and suddenly I felt cold as ice. . . .

Clichés: Ever-lurking. Ready to spring themselves into your manuscript. Sneaking in with those fiery-tempered red-heads and ditzy cheerleaders. All those overused ideas and expressions that we roll our eyes at in others’ work, but fail to see in our own. (Okay, I may be speaking for myself here).

The first time I saw “cliché” marked on my manuscript by one of my critique partners, I was chilled to the bone. “What?! My work is original! I wrote it with my own hand!” Unfortunately, that has nothing to do with it.

Since then, my eyes have been opened, and I’ve improved by leaps and bounds. Trust me, the grass IS greener on the other side. It’s worth the effort to conquer the cliché (and that doesn’t always mean you can’t use them). 😉

So the thing about clichés is that there are multitudes of them. In fact, there are so many ways to be cliché, they’ve had to categorize them. Furthermore, there’s even a cliché dictionary! I bet you didn’t know that.

I know I’m leaving your hanging, just when it started to get interesting, but I am a woman of few words, and this post is getting long.

So to close (with the promise to continue this discussion next time), what is your favorite/most detested cliché?

P.S. Can you find all the clichés in this post? I’ll mail a candybar to whoever gets it right first (on their first guess). 😀

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