As writers, we are told to avoid cliches like the plague. Cliches, we are told, have no place in our poetry or prose. We should strive to forever forge new metaphors in the fire of our imagination. Cliches don’t work, they’re tired, they elicit no response from the user.
Well, to that I say, Poppycock. Cliches are our language. We have hundreds of years of cliches, idioms, bromides, local sayings. They fill up volumes1. Studies have been done on them. The do have value because they define us as a people, regardless of the culture we’re in. Cliches are comfortable, they help us recognize each other. New cliches are created every day, with each new expression that comes out of the business world, sports, and especially the hip-hop culture. Today’s cutting edge paradigm is tomorrow’s jiggy cliche. Yes, I know the previous sentence was not an illustration of cliches. I wanted to simply illustrate that words, regardless of their origin, are original at some point, regardless of how we treat them over time. Groovy? Groovy.
What’s old is new again
But cliches do belong in our writing, our latest stories. I know a 100,000 writers just gasped out loud, 10,000 writing teachers are aghast or fainting, and 1,000 agents just noted in their file, “note: don’t touch Plumer’s queries with a ten foot pole.” But I know this is true: cliches help us define our characters and situations. It’s how we speak. If a character exclaims, “Holy crap, what a surprise!” we know them differently than if they had said, “Well, you can knock me over with a feather.”
What’s past is prologue
Mark Twain was a brilliant writer who originated new terms, new expression, and was ahead of his time by at least a hundred years. But even the great one used cliches, the sayings of his time. (In Tom Sawyer, Aunt Polly says, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Fits her, fits the story.) So too with Shakespeare, who invented so many of the words and expressions we use today. In fact, every time we write or say common cliches such as, “a fool’s paradise,” “dead as a doornail,” or “too much of a good thing,” we are quoting Shakespeare!2
I don’t believe cliches make our writing bad any more than brilliant new metaphors make our writing good. It’s only in their use and application. Does the cliche work, does it serve a purpose? Then use it. Does your shiny new metaphor detract from the story? Will every reader stop and think, “My, that’s a clever turn of phrase”? Then don’t. Lazy writing is lazy writing. Write with purpose, cliches and all.
What do you think, am I making a mountain out of a mole hill?3 Comment below!