Guest blog: Giving cliches short shrift

Today’s post is from Louise Marley, an extraordinary writer of over a dozen novels, and one of the best writing teachers around. Her latest novel, The Glass Butterfly (see below) will be available on August 28.

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When did the expression “blood-curdling scream” make its way into our everyday lexicon?  Why do we use expressions like “pass with flying colors” or “flash in the pan”?  Why do we fall back on the same trite phrases–“bated breath”, “tongue lolling”, “hale and hearty”?  Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever bated my breath, but perhaps I’m wrong.  My dog’s tongue is more likely to flap than to loll, and I don’t even know what “hale” means unless I look it up.

I love William Zinsser’s take on cliches in writing.  Quoting from his wonderful book, On Writing Well:  ” . . . these drear phrases constitute writing at its most banal.  We know just what to expect.  No surprise awaits us in the form of an unusual word, an oblique look.  We are in the hands of a hack, and we know it right away.”  Ouch.  I don’t want to be called a hack, and I’ll bet you don’t, either!  Writing in cliches is lazy writing, falling back on what comes easiest instead of searching for what will be most colorful.

Often the source of cliched expressions is so old we can’t find it.  Other times a phrase or expression sticks in people’s minds because it’s apt, at least at the time it was invented. Many cliches are adapted from great writers, in particular Shakespeare.  Who hasn’t seen “vanished into thin air” or “bag and baggage”, “cold comfort” or “short shrift” way too many times.  Shakespeare.  The venerable book on publishing, Words Into Type, has an extensive list of trite expressions, including the ones I’ve mentioned.  There are also a number of websites devoted to the topic, such as clichesite.com, and one of my favorites, Our Favorite Shakespearean Cliches.

It’s useful, if you decide despite everything that you need to use a cliche, to understand the etymology behind it.  Perhaps “bated breath” is what you mean, in which case be sure at least to spell it correctly.  It’s not “baited breath”, though it sounds the same.  “Bait” is for fish.  “Bate” means, among other definitions, to hold in.  But there may be a more colorful way to say that your character is holding her breath.  Perhaps she’s startled so she forgets to breathe.  Perhaps she doesn’t dare breathe for fear someone will hear the sound of air moving in her lungs.  Perhaps she feels, if she postpones her next breath, she will have better luck in whatever she’s trying to do–or not to do.

The point is that we, as writers of fiction and nonfiction, should give some thought to the way we use words, and the words we employ descriptively.  We don’t want our readers to “know just what to expect.”  We want them to be intrigued, enthralled, entertained, and turning pages swiftly to find new treasures of expression and meaning.

The way to avoid a cliche is to think more deeply about what the cliche represents, and find your own way, in your own voice, to show that to the reader.

The exercise may drive you to your thesaurus, but there’s no harm in that!  It’s part of our challenge to create fresh ways of saying the same thing, and often a neat metaphor or simile may result.  In dialogue, if the cliche fits the character’s way of speaking, it doesn’t matter.  People do speak in cliches, all the time.  But in narration, I would be perfectly happy never again to read that someone’s spine tingled, or their tears spilled, they clenched their fists or they spun on their heel (which seems a singularly awkward movement.)  Samuel Goldwyn is supposed to have said, “Let’s have some new cliches.”  I feel certain we can produce a few!

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Louise Marley, a former concert and opera singer, writes stories of the fantastic. Sometimes set in the past, sometimes in the future, often in a curious present, her novels tend to be feminist, often musical, occasionally dark, but always with compelling, colorful, and complex characters. Louise is in demand as a teacher of writing workshops for adults and young adults. See her blog at Red Room.

The Glass Butterfly

Tory Lake finds that it’s not that hard for a person to disappear without a trace–even when that person is herself. In an antiques store she finds things she can use to reinvent her life.  China, glassware, linens, old books and records–and photographs.  Framed family photographs, which once represented a family’s history, and which now–through some twist of events she can only imagine–are offered for sale to strangers.  Tory creates a new life with these things, and does it successfully–except that she kept one item from her real past, and it changes everything.

4 Responses

  1. Diane Farr says:

    I hate it when I realize my latest manuscript is peppered with (ouch! there’s another one!) cliches. But they are useful shorthand. Everyone knows what “bated breath” is, even if they couldn’t tell you how to spell it & don’t realize it’s related to “abatement.” Sometimes a cliche is the cleanest, surest way to communicate something, and an author’s clever new invention would just be confusing. It’s hard to know what constitutes “best practices” in such a situation.

  2. Kay says:

    From Louise:

    Sometimes a cliche is the cleanest, surest way to communicate something

    This is a truism, I think. And, in fact, sometimes the author should choose the cliche because of that. It’s my view that as long as we, the writers, are aware of using cliches, and have good reasons for their use, we’re good. It’s the automatic shortcut that harms the freshness of our narratives. Judgment is such an enormous part of creation–and there is no one rule that should be followed at all times! (Other than writing the best prose we can.)

  3. Cliches are shorthand, and as such they come with a lot of contextual baggage. Like metaphors, cliches can tell us about how a character thinks and experiences the world. This can be a good thing if you want to convey “this is the culture of the POV character.” And a hideous, hilariously inappropriate thing if used carelessly.

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