Roses have thorns
The sky is blue
All I want to say
Is that I love you.
What is, exactly, a cliché? If a cliché is an idea, sentence or pun, commonly known because it got repeated to the point of exhaustion: How many times do I have to say it to become a cliché?
I’ve read many times that the sky is blue, but I also read it was grey: all colours of the rainbow; pitch-black in a new moon and mysterious in a full moon; romantic in sunset and promising with each new sunrise. What if I describe the sky, instead? I’ve heard the clouds look like cotton, fluffy pillows, candy floss…
To identify a cliché, ask someone who isn’t a creative writer (or a writer that isn’t creative — they’re out there!), to describe love. Well, love cannot be described…♡♡♡♡ If you’re confident you’re not that kind of writer, give it a go and write a romantic paragraph in a stream-of-conscientiousness. The easiest way to write without editing your thoughts is to limit your time: set an alarm to 10 minutes and write.
Clichés come easy when you don’t think about them; it’s natural to realize your first draft is packed with them. They are little pieces of information, previously recorded in our brain cells, that represent a universal and usually undoubted truth. Before a cliché rises (or should that be ‘falls’?) to the title of cliché, it sounds like genius!
If you pay attention to the kind of clichés people are using more often within a social group, you’ll be grasping the mental frame and beliefs of its social brain. Zoom out, look for the clichés used in different eras, and you’ll learn about humankind’s social evolution.
The problem is, the same way you aren’t thinking about clichés while writing, so isn’t everyone else who’s reading them. They are blank patches intertwined with your prose or, if you insist on using them, little black holes. Or cheese!
Depending on context, a piece of information, metaphor or simile, can be a cliché or not. I sigh with boredom every time I read about another child who looked like an angel, was really smart for his age, had big blue eyes and long eyelashes. But if you say that about a frog, I’m all ears!
Forget about the profound meaning a particular cliché you love once had. They will be read as fast and nonexistent as the standard speech-tag ‘he said’. (Good speech-tags are meant to be invisible.) If you don’t know what to write instead, there are two solutions.
1) Go crazy. Make the weirdest connections possible until one fits with your thoughts and isn’t that far gone that nobody else understands it but you. 2) If you’re describing a place, a person or a feeling, select the bits of information that are the most original of all. Do you know the saying “My life would make a great novel!“ ? What makes that place, person or feeling so memorable and different from what everyone else already saw, knew or experienced?
We talk with clichés because we can convey meaning without having to explain much. Actually, it’s true, the sky was blue today; it didn’t even rain. For Ireland it means it was a very nice November day. Which is worlds apart from Australia.
One of the first things I’ve heard when I arrived here, was: “It’s always raining but it’s how we have 41 shades of green!” It sounded lovely, until I heard it again, and again, and again… So there’s a place in your novel suitable for clichés: dialogue. Your most annoying character may talk in them, the rest will use them sparingly.
“I think the one lesson I have learned is that there is no substitute for paying attention.” — Diane Sawyer
In any other paragraphs, think about a cliché as if it was the Bogeyman and run for your life! (And that’s another cliché, by the way).
*All underlined expressions, under the specific contexts they are in, are clichés.