Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Cliché Bound

Happy Day after Halloween!
So, tell me did all the witches who came to your door have warts? Did all the hobos have a scraggily beard and torn clothes? They had to right, or how would you have known they were hobos?
Today's topic is CLICHÉ.

According to Constance Hale author of Sin and Syntax, cliché is a slothful sin in writing she describes as "trite phrases blanched of all meaning by overuse."
Blanched of all meaning by overuse.
Think about it.

The first person to use the phrase "raining cats and dogs" was genius, a great architect of word play.
The second person to use it was very clever in their ability to quote genesis.
The third, well, he was less witty.
The fourth, I wouldn' t call him lazy, (especially since I've used that phrase and cannot possibly be even the hundredth to do so) but you get the picture.
After reading Ms. Hale's book I came to realize that clichés are so prevalent in our world, I very much think in cliché. (Oh man, did I admit that out loud?)

Okay, so I can't be the only one freaking out here thinking OMG for Pete's sake, we are so entrenced in using cliches that we have a holiday dedicated to dressing up as one. How am I ever going to recognize them in my writing?
(Yes, I know I just used like four of them.)

How do we avoid cliché?
It starts by becoming aware of them.

A good rule Ms. Hale suggests:
"Beware of combos you can complete without thinking" for example: loud and ……, or guild the…., burning the candle at…..

But what of those combos that are so knitted together you think of them in unison? for example: rock hard, feather light, or my personal favorite when fighting with my husband…get some air. But we all know it is the polite way of saying "I need to remove myself from this situation before I regrettably have to kill you."

We accept clichés because they are an easy way to impress our meaning. Our job as writers is to find new ways of accomplishing that. Finding a fresh way to tell a story that has been kicking around for centuries is what makes us writers opposed to story repeaters.

If you narrow that concept to a fine point, we need to choose each word carefully. Of course, it would be impossible to use a combination of words never used before, but if you follow Ms. Hale's rule and dump the familiar, you have a good start.

Then we can go so far as to enrich our writing with the practice of breaking clichés.

A prime example Ms. Hale gives is when "Teddy Roosevelt accused his predecessor William McKinley of showing 'all the backbone of a chocolate eclaire'."

I don't know who the first person was to introduce fast moving zombies, but the concept scared the bejesus out of me. In "I am Legend" we ran into a Zombie so clever he could plot against the main character and set a trap. Really!?! Zombies aren't supposed to think beyond their next meal. That's the safe guard, but by breaking the cliché it heighten the freak out factor to the point I had no nails left on my fingers when it was done.

So the lesson is to identify the clichés and strengthen your writing by either dumping them or bending them to your will.

Just don't repeat them.


christine warner said...

Great post! It's so easy to use cliches in your writing, because like you mentioned, they are everywhere. I think sometimes you don't even realize you are using a cliche. lol I know that when I'm picking and choosing my words and phrases I do try and change the words around somewhat when I find myself drawn to a cliche. Make it my own, so to speak, but still with a hint of the original.

Thanks for the great read :)

Casea Major said...

Christine - I agree. I too will turn an old cliche' into a new saying with a hint. But there are time especially when you are deep in a character's voice that I think cliches or ok. Because that's what the character would say. It ties the reader to who they are. In my fantasy worlds I love making up my own cliches and having my characters say them in different circumstances. It makes the world seem more real to me. Fuller and richer.

Brenda said...

I agree with all three of you ladies. I try to avoid cliches as much as I can. And if I need to use a good cliche, I'll try and change the wording a bit. And also, I have used cliches when in a character's pov if it is something that particular character would think or say.
Great post!

Brenda said...

And smart zombies...yikes!

Lisa Kumar said...

I agree with Casea and everyone else who responded. Cliches are better avoided, but there are times when a cliche is perfect and suits our character, well, down to a T;) Lol, I couldn't resist. I also love to give these tired old expressions new life by a simple twist of words.

Lia Davis said...

I try to avoid them. But there are times when one seems prefect, so I have fun bending it enough where it works. Great post!

Jenna said...

I think recycling cliches is the zombie smart thing to do. The problem is identifying them. Fortunately, I have wonderful CPs who can spot them in a nanosecond. Then make it a fun game to "Change the Cliche" (my God that sounds like a new board game from Milton-Bradley! LOL) and personalize it to you and your character.

Great post, Brenda!

Ella Quinn said...

I think if it fits use it. There is no point going crazy.