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Thursday, 18 April 2013

Clichés Are the Dog’s Bollocks, Aren’t They?

Stephen Fry
Cover of Stephen Fry

The temptation, when writing about clichés, probably a cliché in itself, is to use clichés as an attempt at irony. I shall try to resist that temptation. But I’m not promising I’ll succeed.

First of all, what is a cliché? Well, the good old SOED, my particular favourite amongst dictionaries, gives the following definitions:
Cliché: 1. A metal stereotype or electrotype block.
2. A stereotyped expression, a hackneyed phrase or opinion; a stereotyped character, style, etc.

I think we can ignore the first, accepting it as the historical reason for the second, which is of far more literary interest. I’m not going to bother to list any clichés at this stage. I’m sure most of you can quote dozens, and if you’re looking for others, try this link: http://www.clichelist.net/

Secondly, let’s look at the question; are clichés always bad?
They can be a shorthand method of expressing something that everybody’s likely to understand; a way of communicating an idea in a few words that will be readily appreciated. And, in journalism and common speech, such ways of communicating can be useful without necessarily suggesting any laziness on behalf of the communicator. If I say someone ‘abandoned ship’, I don’t need to explain, do I, assuming you understand this is a metaphorical rather than a literal statement? And if I call something ‘child’s play’, we all know that it’s easy, don’t we? So, in this way, clichés perform a valuable service.

However, in works of creative writing, whether fiction, fact, poetry or prose, clichés are generally considered bad things. Why? Well because they generally make the writer look lazy and they generally mean that the writer is lazy, has taken the road of least resistance (there you are, and I said I’d try to avoid it!).

An 1870 oil painting by Ford Madox Brown depic...
An 1870 oil painting by Ford Madox Brown depicting Romeo and Juliet's famous balcony scene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The obvious thing about clichés is that they were once someone’s original solution to the problem of how to express something in a memorable and meaningful way. Many, of course, flowed from the pens of literary giants. Shakespeare comes to mind; ‘A rose by any other name…’ (Romeo and Juliet, if you didn’t know), ‘more fool you’ (Taming of the Shrew), ‘pound of flesh’ (Merchant of Venice) and ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ (Hamlet – the famous soliloquy) are just a few of many. (if you’re interested, there’s a useful resource giving meanings and sources here: http://www.english-for-students.com/Phrases-from-Shakespeare.html
Stephen Fry famously once said, ‘It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue.’
And Harold Evans told us, ‘Attempting to get at truth means rejecting stereotypes and clichés.’

Whilst it’s true that clichés cannot be relied on for the truth, some, nonetheless, are true. But it is, undeniably, lazy to rely on cliché as a means of transmitting a feeling, message, idea or situation to your readers.

I can use the tired old phrase, ‘For Barry, it was always a matter of another day another dollar’ to indicate that my character is in a dead end job only for the money. But it’s a poor way to put flesh on the bones of a character. (Sorry!) Alternatives? How much imagination do you have? ‘There were days, too many of them, when Barry trudged to the office carrying dreams of a career in commercial law, with all the glamour and kudos he believed that entailed. But he understood his lack of education and the need to support his family day to day meant such dreams were best left on the pillow.’ This says a lot more about Barry. It shows the reader how he feels, and why, at least in Barry’s mind, he will remain in his uninspiring job.

I can say that Mary’s bark is worse than her bite, encapsulating a preconceived idea for the reader. Or I can use my own words to put across the reality of my character. ‘Mary stormed into the room and glared at young Michael surrounded by almost every toy from the box. “If you don’t clear this mess up this minute, I’ll spank you so hard you won’t sit down for a week, my lad.” Michael dropped the model soldier and looked at his mother with his mouth open and a threat of tears in his wide eyes. “Sorry, Mum. I was going to clear up before I went to bed, honest.” Mary stepped up to the boy and, enfolding him in her arms, kissed his cheek. “Tell you what: why don’t we do it together?” And she ruffled his hair as she released him and began moving toys from the floor to the box.’ A pleasant domestic scene in which the reader learns something about both Mary and Michael in a far deeper way than is possible with the clichéd version.

These examples are not brilliant. But they illustrate the point, I hope.

Of course, depending on the type of writing you’re engaged in and the nature of the story you’re telling, you can either use relatively mundane descriptive passages to illustrate your stories. Or, if you have the time, imagination, and language skills, you can produce gems of brilliance to dazzle the eyes of all and sundry.
It’s a question of whether you want to be remembered as the writer who dwells in clichés, or would prefer to be hailed as the originator of such well-made phrases that they become the clichés of the future. Up to you.

Another source of clichés, as the word appears in quotes, can be found here: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/cliches.html

Just for the fun of it, see how many clichés you can spot in this post. No prizes, just a bit of fun and games. Post your answer as a comment, should you so desire.

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