Clichés become clichés because they do what they do rather well. There isn’t anything else quite like a bull in a china shop. Nothing could be nastier than having a ton of bricks fall on you. Putting a spanner in the works probably works better than throwing a wooden clog into the machinery --- that act which gave us the word sabotage, form the French word “sabot”.
Plots and stories can be clichéd too, yet it is good for our psychological health to consume the same story over and over. Christopher Booker, anyway, tells us there are only seven stories, Arthur Frank offers us three and Robert McKee provides a template that will structure any story. Part of our enjoyment of stories comes from recognising this pattern over and over.
Language, too, has to repeat so that we understand it.
Christopher Vogler, who used Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces to show filmmakers how to create story in films, suggests that stories work best when these templates are skewed slightly. Otherwise the text is too predictable.
Likewise, language can become tired when we use the same images over and over again, even though they remain extremely powerful.
Can we always avoid this and if so, how do we?
Heartbeats, tears and tasting blood
It isn’t always easy to avoid clichés. There are several circumstances in which our heart rate will rise and saying that is happening is showing us how someone feels rather than telling us that they are scared, excited or have been running hard. So, we’re getting one thing right. Yet how does one say that? It really is difficult to get that across without using one of a handful of clichés.
We have a similar problem with tears – what they do when we’re actually crying and how we feel, physically as well as emotionally, when something makes us want to cry. Do the tears do something other than run down our cheeks? Or prick at our eyes when we are trying to stop ourselves crying? And don’t they always taste of salt?
Many people say that they get a metallic taste in their mouth when a lip or the inside of a cheek is bleeding or when a tooth has been knocked out. This is probably because the most remarkable thing about blood in the mouth is that it tastes of metal.
It’s quite difficult to avoid these particular ones. Perhaps we should use them sparingly and get rid of the clichés we can more easily avoid.
Write it true and write it with the senses
If we can’t avoid all clichés then we must at least avoid as many as we can. We must write our scenes as they actually are, and preferably in the voice of whoever is telling the story. In one of my edits I look for clichés and try and replace them with something more in the moment.
The new Headteacher isn’t a new broom, trying to sweep clean. Rather:
‘He stands in the staffroom, getting eye contact with every member of staff, sniffs, nods and then walks out of the room.
“What was that about?” asks one of your colleagues.
You shake your head, but you guess because of the quality of his suit he is a man who expects only the best.
You clutch your coffee-mug tighter then take a sip of the liquid inside. It’s bitter as usual but at least it’s familiar.’
Writing with the senses helps you to avoid clichés.
Steal from other languages
A cliché from another language can seem surprisingly fresh in English. You might tread on someone’s tie, have someone put their mustard on your sausage or dance lightly through the world. This can be one of the demanding aspects of translation, however. Should one translate the cliché literally or should one try to find an equivalent in English?
Try to look at your scene as if you are seeing it for the first time. It often helps to go to the place you want to write about. Those who write haiku about the park should sit in the park to do so. Or in the case of one of my students sent out of class to write for 40 minutes in situ, if you write about beer, go to the pub.
Of course, memory is useful and we can’t always be in those places that we want to use as settings. It’s a pity as it’s often the small details we forget that give the biggest impressions of time and place.
The very first time I went to Germany and arrived in Cologne station, it was all exactly as I’d expected it to be. More so than any other place I’d ever visited.
I’d read a lot of Heinrich Böll, who was of course from Cologne. He didn’t write travel books but his books had rich settings, written with the senses. I think the details that clinched it may have been something to do with Bratwurst, Senf and a Semmelbrötchen.
Remember you are writing for aliens and try to experience your scene as they would.
Chocolate, orange peel and rain
Okay, so here’s one for your alien. What does chocolate taste like? What does orange peel look and smell like? How does rain feel on your skin?
I frequently use these in writing workshops. Some school children have come up with some fantastic descriptions. It’s a really good exercise in writing with the senses and avoiding clichés.
Also, seeing the familiar in a new way actually leads to more interesting content.