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In Defence of Cliches

Photo by Flickr user Tom Newby [1]
Photo by Flickr user Tom Newby

Fifteen minutes of perusing the worldwide internet will give you a melting pot of advice about clichés, all of which boils down to one simple statement: Clichés are bad.

Nothing ruins good writing like clichés.

It’s been said so many times, it’s almost a cliché. But…. Is it always true?

When Clichés Attack

Now, before you come out swinging, just hold your horses. You don’t want to jump to conclusions or go into this half-cocked. A stitch in time saves nine, as they say, and you should always look before you leap. Bear with me for two shakes of a lamb’s tail, and when all is said and done, we’ll see how the cookie crumbles in the light of day.

See that? That nauseating paragraph above? That’s a prime example of exactly why clichés have such a bad rap. Reading it is an exercise in masochism. (Although, I have to admit, the opportunity to write and publish a paragraph of nothing-but-clichés was more than a little amusing.)

If your prose is packed full of clichés, please ignore everything I’m about to say. But for those of us who have spent years weeding our work of accidental clichés, maybe it’s time to consider whether it’s possible that we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

A Time and a Place

Imagine, if you will, that you’re going on a date. You’re all dressed up and you’re out to make a good impression. Every aspect of the night has been planned to perfection. You pick up your date, deliver the right compliments, and make just the right type of small talk. And then you spring your sinner surprise: you detour through the McDonald’s drive-thru and ask if your date would prefer a Quarter Pounder or a Big Mac. (Spoiler: The date doesn’t end well.)

Imagine, the second: It’s three o’clock in the morning. You’re drunk. You can feel tomorrow’s hangover stalking you, and the alcohol has worn off just enough that you’re painfully aware that you have to get up in three hours to get ready for work. And up ahead, glowing like a beacon of salvation, is the most glorious sight you’ve ever seen: the Golden Arches.

Look, here’s the thing. We all know that McDonald’s isn’t healthy. It barely qualifies as food. There are zillions of reasons not to eat it. And yet there’s something about that combination of predictability, efficiency, and transmogrified sugar and fat that acts as a siren song in some circumstances. You wouldn’t want to live solely on McDonald’s (and, if you tried, you wouldn’t live long), but does that mean we can never eat it?

Clichés are the McDonald’s of language. As long as you’re not trying to force your readers to subsist solely on the tempting aroma of overused, hackneyed language, it’s okay to throw in a pre-loved phrase every now and then. Clichés are short-hand for a whole language experience that ties into history, culture, and previously read stories. When I tell you that the grass is always greener, you don’t have to ponder what I mean – nor do I have to spend three pages or perfect prose explaining Little Johny’s motivations.  Just like a McDonald’s burger, it’s efficient and predictable — and not at all nutritious.

(Note: I hear on the grapevine that McDonald’s may not be the fast food of choice for inebriated non-Australians. In our defence, we don’t have Taco Bell. If McDonald’s doesn’t float your boat, replace with your fast food franchise of choice.)

As I Was Saying…

The one area of your writing that experts tell us clichés are allowable is within dialogue. Writing authentic dialogue means capturing the way people really speak (minus the ums, ahs, pointless repetitions, and all that jazz), and we do like to speak in clichés.

But beyond authenticity, there’s another reason clichés can be useful in dialogue. A character’s choice of cliché says an awful lot about her. While many of our most common clichés are endemic throughout the English-speaking world (thanks, Shakespeare!), there are whole swathes of region-specific clichés.

Consider the character who says: “He’s happy as a dead pig in the sunshine, but you be like the old lady who fell out of the wagon, you hear?”*

Or the one who says: “The old digger may have a few ‘roos loose in the top paddock, but you stop stirring the pot, and she’ll be right.”

Both of those lines of dialogue are full of cringeworthy clichéd slang. And yet, the use of those clichés is efficient short-hand to introduce readers to the nationality, background, and general personality of secondary characters.

Oh, that’s an important point. A protagonist who speaks solely in clichés is about as endearing as that date who took you to the McDonald’s drive-thru in the above example. Stick to letting secondary and walk-on characters immerse themselves in empty calories.

The Anti-Cliché

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get all the efficiency and recognition of a cliché without actually using a cliché? Of course we do. But if wishes were horses, beggars would dine.

Which brings me, of course, to anti-clichés. An anti-cliché is one wherein you set up the stage to deliver a cliché, and then subvert your reader’s expectations. It’s the old bait-and-switch. Or, as sometimes happens, the old bait-and-miss. For example:

Now, some of these anti-clichés have been used so often, they’ve evolved into clichés in their own right (If you don’t believe me, try saying the phrase “build a man a fire” to any Pratchett face.), so use them wisely.

Cliché vs. Trope

But, hang on. When people say that they’re worried their story is clichéd, those aren’t the clichés they’re looking for. What they’re really worried about is that their characters are clichés, or their plot is clichéd, or maybe that scene where the villain ties the hero to a Rube Goldberg death machine and reveals his motivations and plans is clichéd. (Spoiler: It is.) So, let’s talk about character and story clichés.

They work exactly the same way as in-text clichés.

Clear as mud? Okay, let’s unpack this a little. But, first, let me break down the difference between a Trope and a Cliché, when it comes to your story.

Trope: Any aspect of your story (plot, character, scene, pattern, device, etc) that we recognise as such. Tropes are not bad. Nor are they good. They’re just story elements that exist.

Cliché: Any trope that has been used in the same way so many times that it is now predictably boring.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, an orphan boy was the Chosen One who saved the galaxy, and it was hella exciting. But that trope has been played so many times now, that the moment we meet an orphan boy at the start of a movie, we roll our eyes and start playing Candy Crush on our phones.

So, what does that mean for you?

  1. Clichéd characters and stories are generally considered to be bad. This is largely because if you overuse them, you risk your readers dying from malnutrition.
  2. The occasional use of a clichéd minor character or plot device is not going to destroy your story, and can actually be more efficient than a long-winded explanation of something or someone that’s not integral to your story.
  3. Do not make your protagonist or main storyline a cliché. It won’t end well.
  4. Use anti-clichés to subvert readers’ expectations — and don’t be afraid to be self-aware about it.

At the end of the day, there are no new stories. There are no new tropes. All tropes will become clichés. But, one day, all that was old will be new again. So write the story that you want to write. Make your writing as awesome as you can make it — whether that be with or without the occasional cliché nipping at your heels.

What do you think of clichés? Are they the bees knees or just another stop on the highway to Hell?

About Jo Eberhardt [2]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.