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What Cliché Is

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Photo by Tom Newby

Cheating.

No really, the cheating factor is why so many people get irritated when they spot cliché. Leftovers are boring. There are micro and macro versions of cliché, even global versions of cliché, but regardless of their severity, your clichés end up as little more than cheating, leftovers, microwaved vittles pulled from some unnamed dead guy’s fridge. I cannot begin to tell you how not-on-board I am with eating microwaved leftover vittles yanked out of the molding chest of some dead guy’s fridge. That’s how cliché tastes to the imagination. Go on and categorize cliché next to plagiarism in your mind, but remember that cliché is even dirtier. Why?

Clichés are public domain.

We’ll start with the global, as opposed to garden, variety.

Global cliché happens when a phrase is used so often it actually transcends language. Most often, when we mean “cliché,” we mean a metaphor or simile. The tricky part is this: all language at its root is metaphor. The phrase “make an ass out of yourself” is a metaphor so universal that there was graffiti in the second century in Rome of a crucified man with the head of a donkey. People in every language and culture throughout history have used the donkey comparison as insult. And that’s just a one-word metaphor.

Expanding our cliché cache to include phrases, every language has something along the lines of “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” It may be all your berries in one satchel or all of your barley in one barn, but the point’s the same — by using this comparison, you’re taking the lazy way out like the comedian who defaults to the “F” word before doing the hard work of noticing incongruences in his everyday life. You may not enjoy all of Jerry Seinfield’s humor, but you should respect him as a comedian because he never takes the dirty word shortcut like the young guys who try to make a name for themselves through shock. Jerry did the hard work of comedy and there aren’t that many comedians around these days doing the kind of hard chair work the old guard did. In the same way, neither should you cheat and take some clichéd shortcut along your chosen path of prose. Do the hard work of metaphor.

Macro cliché happens with culturally specific references. Adding the word “gate” at the end of a word to indicate scandal is a cliché now, enough that the meaning of the word “gate” is changing, unfortunately. “Beat around the bush,” isn’t so clear in other cultures, but in cultures where flushing out foxes and quail was common, it makes sense. When we depend on a culturally over-used metaphor like “beat around the bush,” we cheat. How? We have refused to work hard and unearth a good metaphor that can also mean “deal indirectly with the problem.” Inventing new metaphors requires sweat equity, especially if we’re trying to create a thematic unity in our work-in-progress. But like all sweat equity, the universe will repay you tenfold, it’ll just take longer. Clichés are as cheap as common bribes.

Micro cliché happens when you reuse a recent metaphor and it often happens when you use something you heard or read recently. This is hard because we pull from the stories we use. Trust me, unless you’re making direct allusions like how Inferno defers to Virgil or how Brothers K pulls directly from Dostoevsky’s Karamazov, unless you’re quoting or alluding, it’s best that you stay away from that one line of dialog in that cop drama you watched last Friday or that description in that prologue you read as a kid. For if it really was good, everyone will recognize its familiarity and your refusal to give credit where it’s due. And if it was originally bad, your cliché will compound the bad literature in the world by a factor of two.

And we should never purposefully compound any bad thing by a factor of two.

The second kind of micro cliché comes from using metaphors that originate elsewhere in your own body of work. Here’s where it gets really tricky. The first time I encounter “gossamer glow” in your work, I’m thrilled as a reader. The next time, I might forgive it as a familiarity or a quirk of your voice. But the third time? The third time I think you’re too lazy to actually deal me a new dish. Prosciutto is nice, but not for every meal and certainly not for pre-dawn breakfast. Watch for this snare because once you start rooting out global and macro clichés by inventing your own metaphors, it’s like test-driving the first race car you’ve ever built by hand. At this point you are most likely to reuse something from one of your old modes of transportation, most likely to throw a piston through the engine block. In other words, when you’re finally inventing your own metaphors you will get invention fatigue. Stay the course. Do not stop short of rooting out your own clichés. I myself got called out for using “aged like a good Bordeaux” probably eight times on various Facebook and blog comments. It’s bad enough that it’s a macro cliché, but it’s worse that I compounded the problem by turning it into a micro cliché through overuse. Don’t be like me. Be better. Reinvent yourself often. Reinvent yourself always.

Disclaimer: it’s Facebook — I really don’t care about your originality on any given social medium (that one’s just for Porter) at any given time.

Let me donate  a couple of heirloom seeds for your new crop of metaphors. The best ones are quick, barely noticeable. We’ll call them mustard seeds. They crop up when uncommon, but powerful verbs get paired with unlikely subjects:

Now those might not be the best, but they illustrate my point. Each of these examples pairs uncommon verbs with common nouns. And if you did happen to like those examples, you can’t use them now. They’re mine.

On second thought, if I’m being consistent I guess I can’t even use them again either, huh?

Another trick is to remove the words “as” and “like” from your vocabulary (this we learn from the poets). If you convert all of your similes into metaphors, you will force yourself to grow much clearer in your descriptions. Try using two unrelated images and linking them by syntax and assonance:

…or whatever. Find a starting block that works for your particular stride and run with it.

Cool it, Lance, sometimes cliché is okay. You’re totally right. Augustus’ parents in The Fault in Our Stars didn’t know how to express the pain in their hearts, so they bought their cheesy encouragement plaques and hung them all over the house. The church lady from SNL turned Isn’t that special? into a running joke. You win — where cliché is a part of the characterization, it works well. Even reinventing old phrases for your world can be fun, thus Martin’s “raven calling the crow black” and Rowling’s “Merlin’s beard!”

But here’s the key distinction: the clichés that work in stories are all either (a) quotes that people hang around their house/on their person as a part of their character in order to display their ascent to a common life or (b) clichés couched in dialog. So let’s be clear: in the narration and action of your fiction, excepting the occasional characterization of a commoner, declare war on cliché and come up with something original to your mind, your convictions, your values.

The moment you start to do that is the moment you’ll find your voice.

We hear that preached all the time – find your voice, find your voice. Well this is one way, so please go do it. Please. It’s super important that you find your voice, not the voice of writers before you. Because ultimately, we are poets and what are poets good for if not to create a language the next generation will dare to speak?

(That one’s not my idea, by the way, that one’s C.D. Wright).

Have a favorite cliché, a tired old horse, or a fresh seed you’d like to share? Your turn.

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About Lance Schaubert [2]

Lancelot Schaubert [3] has sold his written work to markets like The New Haven Review, McSweeney’s, The Poet’s Market, Writer’s Digest (books and magazine), Poker Pro, Encounter, The Misty Review and many other similar markets. He reinvented the photonovel through Cold Brewed and was commissioned by the Missouri Tourism Board to create a second photonovel — The Joplin Undercurrent — that both fictionalizes and enchants the history and culture of Joplin, Missouri.