Cliches get stuck to most people’s writing like butter on toast, or maybe like shit on a stick (an expression with surprising origins). I’ve heard the accusation time and again: editors, writers, and critics are all very quick to point out a cliche when they see one, and to accuse a writer of laying down on the job when they employ them. Of course, the vast majority of the time, I completely understand this. Employing particularly cliched language is usually just a great way to irritate a serious reader. Unless you’re doing it ironically (my feeling is that most people who refer to themselves as “serious readers” will look the other way if you can persuasively do something ironically – perhaps the most tired cliche the modern age has given us).
Of course, everyone judges their cliches differently. I still thought that it might be useful to spend a few moments meditating on the phenomena and understanding its potential place in a novel.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking over lists of cliches that writers should never use. This research has left me with the feeling that creative acts are never improved through prohibition. After all, there are as many such lists as there are websites to spew them out as clickbait. Worse, they seldom agree as to which is the most onerous cliche to employ, though I’m leaning towards “every dog has his day” myself (it offends me twice: once for being cliched, and once more for being a lie). Worse, many cliches that suffer under editorial prohibition also serve as idioms, leading to a dangerous narrowing of the definition of both. The result is an atmosphere of irrational and confused hostility that must lazily collapse into a hopeless mess; a mess crowned by varying levels of critical condemnation.
The question needs to asked though: why do we have cliches? The cliche itself, oftentimes a colorful way of expressing some more-or-less universal idea, is always the first thing to get recognized on a page, but the last to get picked up on in speech. Oftentimes, cliches emerge from literature and take on a life of their own far from the realms of their births any time you find yourself at a loss for what to say. And while every writer knows that they should avoid them , they are very much alive in our real lives. The challenge is to distill down how they work and what they do.
Cliches do speak to something in our collective past, and are a method of tying an intellectual experience together for a reader. In other words, cliches have a communicative power that transcends individual experiences. Each person who reads a given cliche draws a unique conclusion as to its real meaning; we each have a unique emotional relationship with them. And we fall back on them in speech all the time, especially when we’ve been asked to speak extemporaneously. For a writer, these facts can be powerful creative tools. A cliche is something that everyone is guaranteed to “get.” However, cliches need to really ring true for the story and characters expressing them, either in thought or in dialogue. Cliches can serve as a rosetta stone for more complex emotions or challenges that characters have no real tools for coping with. Cliches can be used to underscore character development. Scenes that are seen through a certain set of eyes can become invested with that person by a couple well-placed cliches. After all, cliches are relatable to our experience, whether we are trying to sublimate our rage through them, or to ensure that our need to love is properly reciprocated. In this way, cliches can be useful as tools to build networks between readers, your characters, and the environments you take them to.
Of course, all of this is hard to do (not to mention deeply subjective), but point is this: cliches are a very real part of our intellectual landscape and should never be unfairly nor universally maligned. What you can’t do is hide behind them. A well-used cliche enhances meaning, but can’t create any on it’s own. Cliches should be deployed like exclamation points: sparingly and for emphasis. Doing so well is, as they say, a tough row to hoe, but that certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t use them. Just be mindful and respectful of your reader.