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Why use a cliché? (1 Viewer)

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Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
The general rule is you should not use clichés. But, there are some good reasons to use a cliché phrase or idiom. Effective in saying a lot in a few words, they can also add punch to your narrative or dialogue. And, they are tried and true, that's why people use them. For example:

"It was not lost on her"

"low-hanging fruit"

"a dead ringer"

I remember a cliché that served me very well in a job interview. The CEO who interviewed me asked how I would deal with a certain company challenge that he described. I started my response with, "We would need a slam dunk." I saw the corners of his mouth turn up, and I knew at that moment, I was a top contender. In fact, it probably wouldn't have mattered what I said next, he already had the answer he was looking for. That simple phrase told him that I was risk-averse, meaning we would need a strategy that had a high potential for being successful. It also spoke to my confidence, that I believed I could identify the right strategy. Plus, it showcased my communication skills for leading people, i.e., not long-winded or boring. And yes, I got the job.

Some people believe clichés are not creative and can be annoying -- a tired, stale phrase or idiom that, because of overuse, has lost its impact.

How about you? Do you use clichés in your writing? Or, do you try to avoid them?
 
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bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
There is a place for cliché. In songwriting, they seem to fit well into lyrics. And as per your interview, if you can drop one at an opportune moment, they can work well. I try and keep watch for the moment where you know you've overused one too many times. That's one moment where I would try and avoid using such a phrase. Another is where it simply doesn't fit the tone. If you are aiming for something quite serious and heavy they can bring unwanted levity to the situation.
 

TheMightyAz

Staff member
Mentor
In dialogue they're fine. If you were to write that scene with your to be employee then using 'slam dunk' would be fitting, but if you used it in the descriptive prose, it would stand out badly. They may well work occasionally but aiming to remove every single one should be the objective. When you're chatting to someone and want to speak fluently, smoothly and without any hiatuses, using a clique or words like 'actually' or 'personally' gives you just a second to consider what you're going to say next, cutting out any faltering. Better that than 'erm'. In prose you don't have to worry about stopping mid sentence to think. There is really no excuse for not coming up with something original. :)
 

Lawless

Senior Member
How about you? Do you use clichés in your writing? Or, do you try to avoid them?

I'm reluctant to even call an expression a cliché when you use it for the purpose it's meant for. Like, when you are in a serious predicament, what's the point in describing the situation with some boring mundane words just to avoid using the so-called cliché "up the creek without a paddle"?

Apart from that, a cliché can be very appropriate when you want to sound ironic or when you alter it slightly to make it sound amusing. This has been done brilliantly in the video game "Blue Estate":
"Lino? Mauro? Why am I hearing your voices?"
"Oh, come on, Clarence! Let sleeping dogs be bygones."

or:
"Are you sure you know how to handle that thing?"
"Of course I'm sure. It's not rocket surgery."

I myself have written:
(A young woman, looks at magnificent exotic-looking structures and reflects as a first-person narrator)
That must be it. Arkngthamz. Somehow the sound of that name sends shivers down my... um, let's say spine.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I put my previous post in the wrong place, so replacing it here. That's what you get for posting and listening to a seminar on query letters at the same time...lol!

AZ, hope you still "Like" this post.

@TheMightyAz , you say:
In prose you don't have to worry about stopping mid sentence to think. There is really no excuse for not coming up with something original. :)
That's a good point, but some will argue that too much originality especially when it comes to metaphors and similes can be exhausting to read. Sometimes authors are looking for utility over art. But I agree that overuse for sure is not desirable.

I would agree with your point:
If you were to write that scene with you to be the employee then using 'slam dunk' would be fitting, but if you used it in the descriptive prose, it would stand out badly.
For narration, this: She needed a sure thing. Is better than this: She needed a slam dunk.

But for dialogue: "We need a slam dunk!" Claire said to the team. Works perfectly fine.
 
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Llyralen

Senior Member
I agree. In dialogue it’s fine and can be a part of characterization. Certain people use certain phrases often. You can re-purpose cliques to have deeper meaning for a certain predicament.

I would not use them out of dialogue unless I was making a point of it. I wouldn’t stoop to using something unoriginal unless there were good reasons.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
Rules... rules... rules - I believe that we should do whatever works. Rules provide a good foundation so it's important that we understand them, but writing is more art than science or mathematics - so if breaking them works best for your story, go for it.

Try comparing Hemingway to Vonnegut and hope that your head doesn't explode.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
The general rule is you should not use clichés. But, there are some good reasons to use a cliché phrase or idiom. Effective in saying a lot in a few words, they can also add punch to your narrative or dialogue. And, they are tried and true, that's why people use them.

How about you? Do you use clichés in your writing? Or, do you try to avoid them?
As a senior in High School, I made a similar point to my English teacher, and she I had a bit of debate about it in front of the class. I felt I won the debate, but got the only B, that quarter, I ever got in an English class. Since I subsequently missed Valedictorian by .04 of a Grade Point, I've always felt I won the battle but lost the war. LOL Mrs. Hunter ... I'll never forget her name. I liked her, by the way, which is why I remember her name, not because of the B.

Like anything that can be a drawback in writing, we can survive an occasional cliche. I think of them like my favorite grammarian's advice on semi-colons: Everyone should be allowed to use one ONCE in their life. :) Okay, I don't feel that restrictive about cliches, and as mentioned by others, they work better in dialogue than exposition. You get a bit more leeway in first person. However, I'd also be careful of the context. In some genres, many cliches would be inappropriate because their basis wouldn't exist in that culture.

Some things that might be thought of as a cliche may not be that common. In my sample last night, I used the phrase, "written in blood". Is that a cliche? I don't know. I don't hear it with the frequency of "slam dunk", but I have heard it. It fit the situation. If I need an excuse, I'm writing in first person. LOL

Like any other "rule break", it should only be done intentionally, with full understanding, and with suspicion. Virtually every time I catch myself having written a cliche, on second thought I'm able to drop it and improve the sentence.

There is a place for cliché. In songwriting, they seem to fit well into lyrics. And as per your interview, if you can drop one at an opportune moment, they can work well. I try and keep watch for the moment where you know you've overused one too many times. That's one moment where I would try and avoid using such a phrase. Another is where it simply doesn't fit the tone. If you are aiming for something quite serious and heavy they can bring unwanted levity to the situation.
I'll go beyond that. Clever use of cliches can MAKE a set of lyrics, and even a title. One of my favorite "funny lyrics", I based on "Another nail in my coffin", and even used it as the title of the song. I subsequently scanned a list of hundreds of cliches and noted which ones I thought could be similarly employed.
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
Cliches - fine.
IBM/LinkedIn biz-speak - odious & satanic
In the context of marketing in general, and of my book in particular, I said "drive engagement" in a DM to Az earlier. It just popped out, seemed like the right expression to use.

Maybe someone could say a few words, do a laying-on hands or a white-sage cleanse for that sort of thing?
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
This thread motivated me to visit the cliche data I added to my proofreading app. I scoured blog after blog and site after site for lists of cliches. So how common is it to bump into a cliche? I have 4765 of them in my data. I'm certain I don't have them all.

I looked up my "written in blood" last night. I couldn't find anyone discussing it as a cliche, but I did find it used as the title of several novels. It wasn't in my database, and I think it probably should be considered idiom, rather than cliche.

This Blog has the following interesting comment: "Using idioms is considered a sign of good writing; using clichés in writing is considered poor writing."

It seems to make the main differentiation between idiom and cliche whether the phrase is grossly overused or not. In recommending the use of idiom, they may be unintentionally recommending that various idioms be eventually shoveled onto the cliche pile.

One comment I've made on cliches in prior discussion is that when first used, the phrases were not cliches. They become cliches after achieving popularity. We're supposed to be creative, so maybe we should be creating our own future cliches. ;-)
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
Knowing why it's a rule is the first step to getting away with breaking it!

My understanding is that one of the main reasons clichés and idioms are frowned upon is because they're wholly dependent on cultural fluency. You're tying your work's relevance to that of which you allude, putting a hard cap on not only your readership but your work's life expectancy. . . .

That would be true for fresh metaphors too, which everyone seems to like. So is that really a problem?

A problem with a cliche, like "I'm dying to get some sleep," is that people don't process it as a metaphor anymore, they understanding dying as meaning less, so it isn't as powerful.

I strongly suspect that use of a well-worn cliche also suggests the author's lack of thought -- they can be produced too easily. What I mean is, usually a word comes to mind because it's right -- we usually don't think of the wrong word. But the cliches come to mind too easily/

Which brings us to what is a cliche.
but if you used it in the descriptive prose, it would stand out badly. They may well work occasionally but aiming to remove every single one should be the objective.

The word incline started out life as a metaphor and became a word. There would be an in-between stage, and stand out and aiming might be in that in-between stage. Or if you realized that those were once metaphors and decided they are not now cliches, that's fine.
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
In dialogue they're fine. If you were to write that scene with your to be employee then using 'slam dunk' would be fitting, but if you used it in the descriptive prose, it would stand out badly. :)

I write in first-person, and a brilliant, original metaphor is usually inappropriate, both in dialog and narration, and clichés become appropriate. I assume you were focusing on third person.

Which is boring. I loved, when I was writing about a fantasy world, maybe something in their world was cliché, but I was making it up and none of my readers had heard it. Or, in another book, one of my characters had internalized her father's injunction against clichés, so that was a good excuse to use fresh metaphors. (She is a slut.)

"You can still make friends, May. It's the sex we want to avoid."

"I know, Dad. But making friends with guys is a slippery slope."

He tickles me playfully. "Cliche point." I lose a point because I used a cliche. My Dad is a newspaper writer, well, internet writer now.

Thinking about how to say the same thing without using a cliche. "Making friends with guys is like jumping out of an airplane – just one step can go a lot further than you think."
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
That would be true for fresh metaphors too, which everyone seems to like. So is that really a problem?
Good point!

A problem with a cliche, like "I'm dying to get some sleep," is that people don't process it as a metaphor anymore, they understanding dying as meaning less, so it isn't as powerful.
But why is that a problem? It still conveys a feeling pretty accurately. Many phrases/words can form new meanings over time. If I say pass me a kleenex do you think of the tissue or the brand?

I strongly suspect that use of a well-worn cliche also suggests the author's lack of thought -- they can be produced too easily. What I mean is, usually a word comes to mind because it's right -- we usually don't think of the wrong word. But the cliches come to mind too easily/
It's easy to criticize the use of a cliche as "lack of thought" or "produced too easily." But when a word comes to mind because it's right, we don't criticize the author for producing something "too easily." The test of good writing is not that it was "harder" to write. If the cliche comes to mind because it is right and portrays a thought perfectly in fewer words, then shouldn't it stand the same test as a word choice? Does it stand out as awkward? Or, is it clear?

I'm not making an argument for cliches. I really don't know the answer to my own question. Still exploring before I edit my novel. I know there are a few cliches to tackle in there. My plot is very complex, but my writing style is natural. You might even call it "easy." My goal is to clean it up without over-working it.

Which brings us to what is a cliche.

The word incline started out life as a metaphor and became a word. There would be an in-between stage, and stand out and aiming might be in that in-between stage. Or if you realized that those were once metaphors and decided they are not now cliches, that's fine.
Yes, there is a scale, that's true. Maybe that can help us determine whether to not to use them. But it emphasizes the fact that people come up with the original phrases, or metaphors because they are trying to express something effectively, in as few words as possible. Rather than using the word "inclined" which sounds very natural, we would not eliminate the metaphor just because it's overused and say, "favorably disposed toward."
 
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Llyralen

Senior Member
I like examples, so I’m just playing around with this here. I don’t know if I could find a way to make #2 interesting as a challenge.. but that’s my point, I guess. Cliques are often compact punchy thought, but usually we’ve heard them before… which is the only way they make sense, actually.. What makes them interesting is the context you decide to use them in. We’ve heard it before and know what it means so if there an interesting re-purposing? How you use them or context, makes it “a dime a dozen” or memorable.

1. The cliche used in dialogue
“Speak of the devil.” Margo said loud enough as Devon walked by.
“Did I hear my name?” Devon turned.
“Close enough,” said Margo slipping off the bar chair to put her arm around his waist.

2. The cliche used only in the prose
Speak of the devil, there was Devon now with two drinks in hand. Likely taking one back to the blonde with fish-net leggings. “Hey, Devon, is one of those for me?” Devin looked confused. Margo slipped off of her bar chair and put her arm around his waist.

3. Was made into a metaphor that turns out to develop character and give foreshadow. The cliche is used to effect by the character in dialogue, further developing her character.
Devon wasn’t a dangerous man. He didn’t drink heavily, he didn’t sleep around. He had a steady job. He wasn’t your typical fallen angel, but whenever Margo saw him a demon woke up inside her, a demon desperate to leave cozy, air-conditioned heaven to sink down to the depths of fiery Hell.
“Speak of the devil.” Margo said loudly. As Devon walked by looking like the son of a god.
“Did I hear my name?” Devon turned.
“Close enough.” Margo said slipping off of her bar stool to put her arm around his waist.


That was fun. :)
 
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