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On cliches

June 1, 2012

Mary Ann de Stefano’s recent post about loving your sentences got me thinking about cliches. When I was single, I always thought I knew what I wanted my first dance to be at my wedding, should one ever happen: Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers. So I found the right woman and proposed. She decided I could pick the first dance song, and for the first time in my life, I was musically impotent.

Don’t worry, she said, it happens to everyone once in a while.

You see, a movie called Ghost had come out and ruined my freaking first dance song. If I’d have picked that song a year earlier, it would have been an inspired choice. By using it after that stupid clay pottery wheel scene with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, I’d be doing what everyone else was doing. They made my song a cliche. 

Cliches suck. They suck the life out of an otherwise stellar piece of work by allowing your reader to grab hold of them and say “Aha! I caught you! Everyone uses this!”

In Mary Ann’s post, she mentioned a few: fire-engine red, scared to death, worst nightmare, sick as a dog, sighed with relief, angry silence, bone of contention, breath of fresh air, blessing in disguise, dark secret, cold sweat. Thing is, it’s not that hard to turn a cliche into something fresh.

My current car could reasonably be called fire-engine red. For that reason, I will never call it…well, that. I prefer the term speeding-ticket red.

Sick as a dog? How about Our dog ate three pounds of chocolate one Christmas and threw up little piles of semi-melted chocolate throughout the entire house. In spite of his sin, he didn’t bother cowering when we got home; it was too much work. I was sicker than that. Eliminating cliches isn’t necessarily about swapping one phrase for another. It’s about making the point in a fresh way.

Scared to death? First of all, probably not. Unless you’re writing a zombie story, the odds of a character being literally scared to death are about zero. So why not use that opportunity to show what your character is afraid of, then capitalize on it. Jim had always told her that if he were trapped in a room with a snake, he’d run through Mother Theresa to get out and not feel a second of guilt for doing it. It’s a little longer, but it carries its weight in what it reveals about the character.

So cast out your cliches. Kill them dead than a…well, anything but doornail.

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One Comment
  1. Jack Owen permalink
    June 1, 2012 7:11 am

    Somewhere, someone’s working on an App. to seek and hilite cliches.
    Hopefully WordPress will read your blog and remove – “Thanks for flying” ;^(

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