We all know that cliches make for bad writing, but why are they so problematic? Why do we feel almost outraged when we read one? And when are cliches not a problem?
Video transcript follows below:
There’s an old joke about a guy who walks out of a performance of Hamlet and says, ‘I don’t see what all the fuss is about – it’s just a string of clichés.’ Shakespeare coined all sorts of phrases that over time have become clichés; we’ve got the bard to blame for the fact people still write that someone has a heart of gold (Henry V) or that the world is their oyster (The Merry Wives of Windsor).
But that’s often the way with clichés – they start off as vibrant new expressions, expressions so powerful that people repeat them. And repeat them. And repeat them.
For instance, in 1821 Lord Byron described a man who stood as still as a statue. His readers must have been struck by this simile, for they started to quote it, and soon it passed into common parlance, and whatever power the original image held quickly dissipated. Today, to write that a character stands as still as a statue is to waste your readers’ time, which, I think, is why we feel almost offended when we read a cliché. Today, ‘she stood as still as a statue’ means nothing that ‘she stood still’ doesn’t. Making your readers read four extra words for no good reason is tantamount to rudeness. It’s the literary equivalent of talking on your mobile in the quiet carriage.
In contrast, were you to write ‘she froze’, I wouldn’t be much perturbed. It’s true that ‘she froze’ is a cliché that’s lost its power, but is there a quicker way to tell me that someone stopped and for a time remained still? Clichés that have some use even when their original power has been lost eventually become ‘dead metaphors.’ They don’t offend us the way that timewasting clichés do. For instance, I don’t feel irritated if I read that someone sifted through the possibilities until they found a word that fitted.
Writing in the Guardian in 2007, Zadie Smith castigated herself for, in consecutive novels, having featured a character who ‘rummaged in her purse.’ It’s far from the worst thing a writer could write, but it is still a slightly annoying cliché. It seems to me that the problem isn’t that rummage originally meant to search the hold of a ship – that meaning is now secondary and rummage has surely qualified as a dead metaphor. No, I think the problem is that ‘rummaged in her purse’ uses one word more than ‘searched her purse.’
The problem with clichés, then, is to do with the readers’ time. There’s a simple formula you can use to evaluate the strength of a piece of writing – sense conveyed divided by words used. Clichés irritate us when they add to the words used but don’t add to the sense conveyed. When Shakespeare described people as having hearts of gold, he conveyed a mass of sense. Today, writing that a character has a heart of gold is just an irritatingly long-winded way to say that she or he is kind.
Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.
(The cover thumbnail for this video uses a photograph by Tom Newby. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here)