Sunday, January 18, 2015

Clichés, Dull Knives, and Sharp Tools

A cliché is like taking a butter knife to a hunk of steak or a pristine golden pepper. If you want to discard fat or pith, you’ll need a honed instrument. If you want to engage readers, you’ll need honed language. How else can you trim the excess to reach the good parts?

What’s a cliché? A metaphor or expression that’s “dead as a doornail.” Clichés may seem harmless as a sheep in sheep’s clothing. But unless they’re somehow refurbished with evolved genetics and meaning, they’re at best an irritant and at worst an enemy of language, story, and theme.

Tip: Clichés are more treacherous than they seem.

If the character, event, or expression is the first thing that comes to mind, it’s the last thing you want on the page. A trope (dead metaphor or over-used plot device) not only spawns yawns from readers; it’s the enemy of the story that only one person can tell.

Where do clichés come from? According to Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd in Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction,  

The world brims over with temptations for the writer, modish words, unexamined phrases, borrowed tones, and the habits of thought they all represent. The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement. Only by rejecting what comes too easily can you clear a space for yourself.

Clichés can “creep in” and “do damage” from “top to bottom.” They’re part of our language, our culture, our consciousness.  They can infiltrate fiction at the level of character, scenario, description, or metaphor. Kidder and Todd observe that:

When metaphors are fresh they are a form of thought, but when they are stale they are a way to avoid thought. “Tip of the iceberg” offends the ear as a cliché, and it offends reason because it is imprecise, if not spurious…

Decimate every clap of thunder” and kiss beneath a full moon. Trust that new stranger in town as you would the plague. Clichés are a plague, a threat to writer origination of events and conclusions and to reader interaction with the clues a good novelist provides.

What’s the “tried and true” cliché test? If it’s “the first thing” that “pops into your mind,” hesitate. Is this “yesterday’s news”? Could you plot this scene differently? Add complexity to this character? Describe the villain, damsel, mentor, surf, robin, or train station in a way no one else could—because no one’s thought about it the way you have. That takes effort. But you’ll like the moment better. So will your readers.

After all, isn’t that what fiction’s for?  In The Writing Class, Jincy Willett reminds that, “Only in art were there clichés; never in nature. There were no ordinary human beings. Everybody was born with surprise inside.”

Spread some surprise.

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