Cliche and the Use of Language

November 22nd, 2011  |  Published in writing

The dictionary on my computer defines cliche as “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought”. I’ve never heard it used in a positive way, it is always a criticism. There is a good reason for this, prose that relies on cliches is flat, stale, dead on the page. Another way to define cliche is a phrase that is so familiar that it has lost virtually all meaning, it no longer engages the reader in any meaningful way and the work would most likely be better served by a direct statement. In short, avoid cliches.

The opposite end of this is purple prose in which the writing is so ornate as to distract from any point that it might otherwise make. This has traditionally happened in pulp novels, but has also started to happen in literary fiction. When you remove Plot, your only recourse is character and style, and there are only so many books about dysfunctional families that one can read, so it becomes easy to abuse style. (Yes, I do realize that I am painting with a very broad brush here. I am not saying that all literary fiction suffers from this, just some.)

As a general rule, I believe that the effect of any flourish, be it vulgarity or flowery prose, is inversely related to the frequency of its use. Which is really just a long way of saying that the more uncommon an element, the more impact it will have.

All of that being said, I now get to my real reason for writing this post. In my last weeks at Borders, I found an excellent book for adding a little freshness to prose: Merriam-Webster’s Easy Learning Spanish Idioms. It contains common Spanish idioms along with their direct translations and explanations. For example: “ser como en un entierro” which means “to be like a guitar at a funeral” and is analogous to “stick out like a sore thumb”. Obviously some of the phrases can be used verbatim, but I think that to do so exclusively would be to miss an opportunity. Through something like this, you can see how idioms arise from culture and history, which should get you thinking about what idioms arise from the culture and history that you are writing about (I’m thinking of the fantasy genre here, but I think that it applies equally well to the idioms that arise out of something even as small as a town or a family). If you don’t like that one, there are plenty of books about the subject, like I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms from Around the World.

The point is, if you want to write fresh and engaging fiction, there is a whole world of diverse and fascinating people out there to draw on. Just do so sparingly.

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