In writing, a clichéd expression is a well-used phrase or opinion that betrays a lack of original thought. How can writing be amusing and punchy and avoid being clichéd?
Clichés are part of figurative language (see link). They use words in a way that deviates from accepted definitions or literal language. Figurative language is an important part of writing. It conveys complicated meanings or powerfully heightens an effect better than literal language.
Being able to use abstract thought is part of what is great about being human, as figurative language is what makes stories amusing, absorbing and inspirational. Giving original ideas you curate, context with something known to the reader is a powerful way of conveying meaning. Using figurative language is an important part of the evolution of our language and celebrates what it is to be human.
Cliches are not encouraged because they can make writing meaningless. There are phrases such as “Calling to touch base” (see Examples) that have been so popular they are now as annoying as repeated advertising. Writers should avoid being clichéd when they curate original ideas and not produce populist propaganda, or regurgitate old ideas and phrases. But does this mean we should exclude all cliches? Could some cliches be punchy and highlight important cultural issues. Is excluding all cliches like not eating something delicious, because it has white rice and too much white rice can give you bowel cancer?
Whether or not calling something a cliche is hypocritical, it is a condemnation. This is difficult for writers, as which phrases are clichéd, are nebulous. To understand where they can be used, it is best to think of then as falling on the continuum of figurative language. This includes metaphor, personification, oxymorons, paradoxes, hyperboles, allusions, idioms, and puns. All these phrase types can become clichéd.
The figurative continuum
Original figurative language is at one end of this continuum. Creative writing encourages, for example, original metaphor, and formal writing tolerates them. Metaphors are phrases which depart from literal or accepted meaning such as the expression “excluding all cliches is like not eating something ”.
When a figurative expression is used often enough, it moves down the continuum and gains a valid meaning to those unaware of its original context. It becomes informal. “Light at the end of the tunnel” is informal, as although it may have a literal meaning to coal miners, its use has given it a valid meaning outside of a coal mine.
Small amounts of informal language are tolerated in fiction, but not academic writing. They shouldn’t be used when contractions or slang are a bad idea. This includes most narrative. We should be sparing with them in dialogue. Almost all dialogue would be more powerful without unoriginal writing.
Without an accepted meaning, phrases can have different meanings at different times and in different cultures, which is why they shouldn’t be used in formal language. For example, the cliche “the proof of the pudding” is open to interpretation, because originally it was “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,”
Evolution of language
When figurative phrases are over-used, they become clichéd. When they are used enough, they can become part of our literal language. The original meaning of decimated was a punishment in the Roman Army where every 10th soldier was killed. It was used as a metaphor for destroying most of something, Now, this is the accepted meaning.
“Catch-22” used to be a cliché in my lifetime, but now it is a noun and part of the literal language.
“Dropped” has been used as a metaphor to mean streaming that has become available. It would be an idiom as only young people use it. When my age-group uses the verb this way, it will be clichéd. In the future, this use of the verb could be accepted and become part of our literal language.
Where can cliches be valid figurative language
The intent of a cliché should be considered. I love using original metaphors and having written this I will experiment with other types of figurative language. I write in a genre best described as “Near-future Science fiction”. This genre is more tolerant of clichéd phrases than it is of clichéd ideas. There are contexts, where I have used unoriginal phrases in my writing. In another context, they would, for me, be clichéd. The following are ways I use figurative language in my writing while avoiding being clichéd.
When a figurative phrase is culturally important for the story as a whole and the writing has shed light on it, it can avoid being clichéd if it is an extended metaphor. I’ve written a story with the theme “turn the other cheek” in my short fiction “Doing them like a Donald” (Download PGF EPUB MP3). This extended metaphor was useful to give an original perspective on the universal issue of bullying.
Exaggerated statements to express strong feelings such as saying “you’re making a storm in a teacup” is a hyperbole, and is much more fun than saying you’re too dramatic, but to avoid being clichéd it would almost always be better to come up with a more original hyperbole that’s funnier such as “you are like a Christian who has found out that the Jews are right”.
I have used what is often a cliché, “I only wanted her for her body” (Download PGF EPUB MP3) as a title in short fiction, because the phrase has a new context in the story, which made it into a pun. Puns like this often avoid being clichéd in titles and dialogue but would be clichéd if they were not funny.
Idioms that express culture
The biggest disadvantage of using idioms is their meanings change over time and in different cultures, but this can also be useful. A character’s use of idioms in their dialogue can avoid being clichéd if they indicate the period of the story and the culture of the person. Expressions such as “flat out like a lizard drinking” (Australian), “Ciao Bella” (Italian), “dig the well before you are thirsty” (Chinese) and “spill the beans” (American) can be used to specify the culture of the protagonist. If characters say idioms such as “I’m just saying”. “If I’m honest”, “An eye for making the world a better place” or “a word to the wise”, this can help develop an understanding of their nature and background.
In ‘Flying with Galahs” (Download PGF EPUB MP3)I have used expressions such as the title to evoke the Australian context and expressions such as “no shit” to indicate the age of the women protagonists.
Idioms which are shorthand for a shared understanding
Some phrases such as “laws were made to be broken,” “he is who he is” and “what would I know” are well used because they are clear and express an idea with a shared understanding. It could be laborious to explain their meaning without them. They can make your dialogue more amusing and punchy. The meaning for “shed light” I used previously in this blog, has not been accepted. I still used it because I found “illuminate the understanding,” too formal.
Critiquing work with figurative language
Phrases are cliches because people, such as characters in a story would often use them. It seems wrong to not have a character say them when they would have, but writing should be more formal than verbal conversations and things like swearing, colloquialisms, use of adjectives and idioms should be scarce in written work.
Rewriting idioms is often a good option, such as “a bull at a gate” could be changed to “a goat in a box”. Rewriting can even be funnier, but it should keep the intent of the original idiom.
It is not hard to over-use figurative language, even when it is not clichéd, but for example, using nouns as figurative verbs, makes writing original, but I find it to be tedious and confusing. Expressions in “The Shadow King” such as “[radio] static lasered into the room:” uses a confusing verb as “laser” was inappropriate for the 1930s when the story was set and anyway sound doesn’t laser. The verb “hissed” is clichéd, but that is what static does.
“The Shadow King” did not use clichéd phrases, but the ideas were unoriginal. There were several pages on how bad the rape of a child is. This is not an original idea. I have written about this myself. How the rape as a child bride affected the marriage, wasn’t a clichéd idea but was ignored even though the victim was one of the main protagonists and her relationship to her husband was important to the story.
I found the book a convoluted way to regurgitate old ideas, but I aim to curate original ideas (see Ken’s goals for writing). On the other hand. “The Shadow King” has aesthetic values for others, which has secured it a Booker Prize nomination, so what do I know?
Figurative language can be a powerful way to convey meaning for ideas as they give these ideas context, but a writer should understand what these phrases reveal and avoid being clichéd. Being original is almost always best.