Pale as Tallow on a White Plate*
Death by cliché is insidious
Copyright 2002 by Nathan Harms
If you don’t know what cliché is without looking up the word in the dictionary, chances are it is already killing your writing. Death by cliché is insidious, suffocating your articles, stories and poems as silently and finally as a pillow in the night.
The dictionary states that a cliché is “an expression worn out by long use.” In other words, a cliché is the opposite of something fresh or exciting. Cliché is the opposite of what you want your writing to be.
It’s my theory that much of our use of cliché arises from the spoken word. Expressions acceptable and common in everyday conversation work their way into our writing, with deadly results. If we say, for instance, “I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes,” our dinner companions do not look up in shock from their buttered sprouts to chastise us for our lack of original expression. More likely, they respond to the ideas we are sharing. But if we have one of our fictional characters utter the cliché, “His face was red as a beet,” we signal mediocrity for the reader.
Writing is about words almost as much as it is about ideas. One of the first rules of cliché is this: never use cliché as an aid to description or to add genuine color. If you must use it, use it only with specific intention, to provide humor or help build a caricature,—and then use it only sparingly.
Types of Cliché
Cliché can strike at our writing with cliché plots or characters, but let’s focus on cliché similes and metaphors.
The sun was a burning disk
His forehead was dry as a bone.
She pecked like a bird at her dinner.
These type of clichés populate most beginner’s writing, perhaps even excusably. A break from such phrases into an original voice might be the first sign of a writer no longer green as grass.
I’ve been reading the author, Reynolds Price, and he’s quickly become a favorite. Let’s sample his style—the unique flavor of writing devoid of cliché. In our first example, Price describe a boy’s reaction to a snakebite. “Then his face went white again; his lips clenched down. The pain poured up him from ankle to eyes, plain to see as a rat in milk.”*
A beginning writer might have written, “plain to see as the light of day.” A lazy writer might have written, “the pain was as clear as the nose on his face.” Price also reverses the direction of the pain that pours through the boy, “poured up” rather than down as we might expect. It gives the picture an outstanding quality.
It’s important to note the appropriateness of Price’s simile too. Pain and a rat are both unpleasant things. Pain no more belongs in the boy than a rat belongs in milk. He might have ruined his description by choosing a distracting or inappropriate simile, but he didn’t. Instead he created a memorable word picture.
Here are several more cliché-smashing similes and metaphors from Price’s writing. Look at each of them closely and try to see in what ways they are different from a cliché—and why it is they work so well.
- I wore a white silk pair (of pajamas), but was long since dead as a chloroformed dog when the other person came back.*
- Then what good reason could anybody give against the plan of us three spending our whole lives together? We’re nothing but a family; they’re common as beds.*
- I said, “That’s the truth”—I was tired as a wheel.*
- I went to the icebox and checked for supplies. He had enough bologna for a team of starved huskies, a load of light bread, and a big jar of mustard. That was absolutely all; it looked like Oklahoma.*
- Young as I was, I slept like a cinder-block wall in the moonlight.*
- Then I went to my room and locked the door—only time ever—and prayed as hard as a saint in the ring with a lion bearing down.*
As contradictory as it may sound, one of the best ways to excise clichés from your writing is to learn to recognize them in the writing of others—and to identify why they are clichés. Are they common? Are they conversational? How could the writer have expressed the idea differently?
Clichés can be complex, sometimes involving the combination of a cliché expression or simile with a cliché image. Here’s an example.
“Dan and Sylvia’s marriage had begun like a honeymoon cruise, but it had taken too many storms in 20 years, and was now a broken vessel, dead in the water.”
Can you spot the cliché? Actually there are three obvious candidates for the cliché firing squad in that single sentence. “Dead in the water” is clearly a culprit, but “honeymoon cruise” and “broken vessel” are also unacceptable. Unfortunately, there’s an even worse cliché in Dan and Sylvia’s case. It’s a cliché of the metaphor. Comparing a life, marriage or relationship of any kind to a voyage on the ocean is as common and cliché as can be.
What’s the cure? Perhaps the removal of a few clichés will do Dan and Sylvia some good. Let’s try to move this troubled couple into a less common setting. How about a ski slope?
“Dan and Sylvia’s marriage had run like a 20 year long slalom ski race, deadly fast, twisting through obstacles—and downhill all the way.”
This scenario adds a bit of color to the picture of Dan and Sylvia’s situation. Even if they don’t solve their problems, they’ll find reading about them less boring.
Here’s another tact.
“Dan and Sylvia had begun their marriage with the enthusiasm of two children on a Red Ryder wagon trip around the block, but 20 years of quarrels and spills had scuffed their innocence.”
Fun with Clichés
Trimming out the clichés can bring fun and challenge into your writing, as well as improve it. Your writing will simmer with freshness, and you’ll amaze yourself with the crisp images that emerge when the smudge of cliché is cleared away.
Poets are especially prone to cliché, yet there are no other writers as likely to benefit from fresh expression as poets.
Here’s a challenge for all writers. Take out a manuscript of an article, story or poem you think is complete and polished. Put it under the cliché microscope. Are there everyday expressions and idioms where you might insert more flavorful choices of words?
To offer readers cliché is to hold out stale bread while you as a writer have every delightful thing in your other creative hand.
*Marked phrases are all taken from works by Reynolds Price, including The Tongues of Angels (1990 Atheneum) and Kate Vaiden (1986 Atheneum). I heartily recommend the novels of Reynolds Price for their instructive richness of language.
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