To Cliché or not to Cliché: that is the question…?
The word cliché has been derived from the French for a printing block from which many copies of the same thing can be reproduced.
I want to comment on the use of cliché in writing. There are a great number of people who advocate the avoidance of cliché in writing.
Nonsense I say !
Every character becomes a cliché. History is the longest running cliché because it always repeats its self. Story telling is the art of cliché.
A cliché is an idiom or phrase that has become popular and used as part of the language on an ‘every day’ basis. They are often derived from popular culture, quotes and history. Myth is built around the origin of some clichés and the mythology itself can become a cliché! These cosy little critters tuck themselves into the crevasses of our subconscious processes and emerge when no other set of words can be strung together to build meaning more conveniently. They survive longer than the people who coined the phrases or conditions from which they are derived.
The Wikipedia entry for cliché is a clichéd definition of cliché!
The “rule”- ‘avoid clichés like the plague‘ is a cliché.
There are many visual clichés too, such as the cutaway to a London bus on Westminster Bridge with Big Ben in the background during films featuring a scene in London. Films set in San Francisco compulsorily include a scene involving the only street with trams operating.
There is much advice to writers and authors, suggesting that under no circumstances use clichés.
Clichés are a part of our language. They are make up the language that we incidentally use every day.
So it stands to reason that clichés are a necessity in literature. Popular clichés reflect the language of the time. They help build recognisable stereotypes when used in speech. Just the two words “hey man” immediately conjure up a character in the mind’s eye. Comedic use of cliché is brilliantly executed in John Sullivan’s ‘Only fools and horses’. Even the title is a cliché.
He uses strong stereotypes within the characterisations which have become clichés in their own right. This is the case with most brilliant comedy characters but John Sullivan uses sublimely subtle clichés so skilfully that it is almost unnoticeable. Stereotyping by means of cliché can bring the characters into our hearts and eventually into the fabric of our very society. Del Boy’s misuse of popular clichés is just another brilliant twist that John Sullivan perfected. Derek Trotterisms have become popular clichés that have enriched British culture for decades.
Under no circumstances should writers avoid clichés in their work. Clichés should be embraced, celebrated and used appropriately.
Sam Goldwyn famously responded to a criticism that a script contained too many clichés by demanding more!
The secret to using clichés is to be intentional with your appropriation. Don’t just use one because it’s the first thing that comes to mind – that shows a distinct lack of creativity. Only use clichés in a description or narration if it helps build a stereotype for the reader. The voice of the author should otherwise avoid using clichés: this is your opportunity to deftly spin your own words into meaning. Your aim should always be to pioneer new clichés for future scholars to ponder and debate.
But speech and conversation between characters is different. You need your characters to be real, to say believable things, and to react in realistic ways to bring your plot to life and maintain the illusion of plausibility. A witty character, for instance, must draw on a repertoire of comments and comebacks, many of which will inevitably be clichés. A predictable character will often only talk in clichés. Everyday people say everyday things. So your characters should use clichés, colloquialisms, common phrases and snippets from popular culture. I call them incidental inclusions. Super realism depends on them.
Personally, I like to misuse clichés sometimes, or bastardise them in some way, for example
“It’s no skin off my back”, or “I didn’t just make it just in time… I just didn’t make it.”
A Mr Graham Hopkins once replied to a newspaper article debating the use of clichés:
“It’s the same old story isn’t it? In a nutshell, we’ve had all and sundry who, by and large, and with all due respect, can’t see beyond the end of their noses. They’re in their ivory towers telling us that cliches are nothing to write home about (call me old fashioned) but I say hold your horses.
I might rock the boat and ruffle some feathers, but in this day and age, the conventional wisdom smells fishy to me. Indeed you might think that I’ve got bigger fish to fry or that I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, but cliches are meat and drink to me. Sure they can stick out like sore thumbs but mark my words (at let me say this loud and clear) a good, bad or indifferent cliche time and time again can warm the cockles of your heart.
I could bang on about this until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, when the chips are down, a cliche is par for the course. I realise I have I’ve got my work cut out but there’s no two ways about it; to some, cliches might stink to high heaven, but I’ll use them till hell freezes over.”
- Graham Hopkins, The Guardian 03.01.2001.
Ironically, if I had asked a 100,000 writers to reply to the same article using only clichés many might have written a similar letter. Why? Because clichés are often the best way of summing something up.
Therefore, and without denial, I have unashamedly used clichés throughout this article – so there!
Below is a massive list of clichés. By becoming familiar with them you are adding clichés into your bag of tricks!