Good Cliché – Bad Cliché
There’s the eye-roll causing turn of phrase. But then there’s the wisdom that is “true to the point of cliché”. Which one to use and which one to discard?
Normally, a cliché is a derogatory term. A tired, overused expression that shows lack of originality.
And it’s true that when a story’s protagonist experiences heart-stopping fear at seeing two shady characters wait outside the house for what seems to last an eternity, sending shivers down her spine, yes, then you really have a writer in front of you who is at his wits’ end and has lost the plot.
Bad clichés usually come in the guise of an idiom, or stock expression.
Unfortunately, no one really knows where idioms end and clichés begin. So you’re on your own. But a good recipe against succumbing to clichés is: Catch yourself when writing something sounding like a cliché. Give yourself ten seconds and see if you can come up with a more descriptive alternative or an idiom that fits better.
If you can’t, then write it and move on. Maybe you’ll catch it when you revise.
But what about the following phrases:
- “Money won’t make you happy”
- “Every cloud has a silver lining”
- “Haste makes waste”
- “Time heals all wounds”
- “Be authentic.”
Well, these are somehow true, aren’t they?
All these phrases point to real wisdom: There indeed is no correlation between increased wealth and happiness (beyond a certain base); doing things in a hurry will usually lead to wasted resources; in most cases, the more time elapses since a hurt we have experienced, the less pain we will feel.
I call these truthful sayings “good clichés”. They are usually boiled-down life lessons that come from a good place – humanity’s collected experience, watered down to the lowest common denominator (ouch!), and passed on through the ages (d’oh!) from generation to generation.
So they should be fair game (argh!) to be used, no?
Well, the problem with them is: They aren’t very original. Everyone knows them and rolls their eyes. The people usually uttering them in earnest have the intellectual appeal of Aunt Bertha in curlers, lecturing her corner shop audience – “that’s what I always say, me”, adding a portentous look.
So what do we do with those good clichés, now that we have them?
My solution is:
I allow them to play supporting roles in my plot. Good clichés are like actors without talent. They can help, and the narrative gets strengthened by their mere physical presence and them speaking a few lines. Not too many.
But don’t rely on them as pillars of your narrative. If they try to muscle their way to more prominence, cut them down to size.
When the cliché becomes the story (or the moral of the story), that’s when a good cliché turns sour. That’s the path descending to the content scrapheap where cheap romance novels and lazy, forgettable blog posts lie.
I would argue that the use of “Authenticity matters” in my blog post on how to become friends with your audience is permissible because it is being used as a building block in a wider argument I’m making. Becoming friendly with your audience to the point where they think about you “What would X say on this topic” requires true authenticity: Only by not contorting your views and staying true to your convictions, you can build long-lasting trust with your audience.
The cliché is not carrying much weight, but, as it is true, it helps the argument.
So, to summarise:
- Bad clichés: Usually come in the form of stock phrases. Avoid them. You will not always manage. But try to catch yourself when an expression rolls too easily off the tongue (damn!).
- Good clichés: Use them when you are making a wider point as a supporting cast member.
Your readers will be grateful.
What are the clichés you love to hate? Post below.