“Cliche” is a word that comes from French, so it is pronounced in the French way, which is “klee-SHAY”. You might see it written with an accent on the “e”, like this: cliché. That is how it is spelled in French but since we don’t use accents in English, it is okay to leave it off (the word cafe, or café, is the same.)
A cliche is something in writing that has been used so often so that it has lost its impact. Think of a cliche like a piece of gum that has been chewed a long time. It’s lost all its flavor, so why would you chew it? Better to go get a new piece.
The problem is, of course, who decides what is overused? There will always be disagreement about what is a cliche (and should not be used) and what is okay to use. Ultimately, it is up to you as the writer, but there are three points to think about:
- You should look carefully at your writing and know why you choose the words you do.
- You want your writing to be clear and to give the meaning you intend
- You want your writing to be impactful and memorable to the reader
In this piece, I am going to look at idioms that have become cliches.
An idiom is a group of words that creates a mental picture in order to convey a meaning. In that way, it’s like a metaphor. However, if the same expressions are usually used over and over for a long time, sometimes the mental picture is lost.
For example: Bite the bullet
The meaning of this idiom, as you probably know, is to just go ahead and do something you do not want to do.
“My 10-page paper is due tomorrow, so after dinner I’m just going to bite the bullet and write it.”
The original mental picture of “bite the bullet” comes from war back in the 1800s. At that time, bullets were much bigger and they tended to destroy bones when they hit them, not just injure the person. Because of that, amputations (cutting off arms and legs) were very common. Also, they often did not have any anesthetic or painkillers. What a terrible thought, right? When they were going to cut off a soldier’s arm or leg, they would give him something to bite down on so he wouldn’t scream, such as a bullet.
This is quite a graphic mental picture. However, these days no one thinks about that when they use that expression. It is fine to use these sorts of expressions when you’re talking since it’s a fast way to say something. We use a lot of cliches when we talk. However, when you are writing, you have time to think about the words you use. Just using the same expressions everyone has used for 100 years will not make your writing very memorable. Here are a couple of ideas to make it better.
Put a Twist on the Idiom
When someone reads “bite the bullet”, the meaning of a difficult thing you have to do goes straight into their brain with no picture attached to it. However, if you change it slightly, that will make the reader pay attention and if you do it well, it can be very memorable, which is what you want.
If you do this, it is important to look at the theme of the idiom and the theme of your story. For instance, the theme of “bite the bullet” is war. You can guess that even without knowing the original meaning because of the word “bullet”. But what if you are writing a story about mountain climbing? That has nothing to do with bullets, so it’s better to choose something in the mountain climbing theme, but what would that be? Bite the climbing pole?
This is where you need to be careful. The word picture has to show the meaning you want, but it also has to make sense. Why would you bite your climbing pole in that situation? There might not be anything you could bite in a modern setting that would give the same meaning.
So, let’s look at a different example:
Idiom: like a kid in a candy store
Meaning: very happy and excited
Word picture: a little kid running around wide-eyed looking at all the amazing candies she could buy
A twist on the idiom: like a dog in a chew-toy factory
This is an easy idiom to the know the meaning of since we still have candy stores today and it is an easy one to change. Just think of a situation that would make someone very happy and excited. There could be many variations on this one.
Twists on other cliches
Idiom: the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree
Meaning: someone growing up similar to their parent
Word picture: a small apply tree growing next to a big one
A twist on the idiom: the stapler didn’t fall from the office building (if your parent works in an office)
Idiom: A snowball’s chance in hell
Meaning: absolutely no chance
Word picture: imagining a snowball in the hottest place you can imagine
A twist on the idiom: a snail’s chance in the Dead Sea (since it is so salty)
Create Your Own Word Pictures
One thing you might have noticed about the examples above is that they’re a little trite, or silly. This is fine if you are writing a silly story but if you want to make more of an impact it is better to make up your own word pictures.
Let’s look at an example of a paragraph that has cliches in it:
Della groaned at the cheerleaders walking up the hall. Thin, blonde girls were a dime a dozen. Once in a blue moon Della had the urge to throw caution to the wind and try out for the squad, but usually she just resented them. Heidi, the head cheerleader bumped Della as she passed by, knocking her into the lockers. That was the last straw, Della thought. She was going to give Heidi and the other cheerleaders a taste of their own medicine.
Obviously, the main problem here is that it has way too many idioms in it. Idioms are like salt: you don’t need many of them and too many can be distracting. The next problem is that all of these idioms are cliches. The themes of the word pictures (e.g. moon, wind, straw, medicine, etc.) have nothing to do with the story, which takes place in school. Let’s look at how to make it better.
1. Identify the meaning you are trying to convey
Here is what all these cliches mean:
- Dime a dozen: very common or inexpensive
- Once in a blue moon: rarely, almost never
- Throw caution to the wind: do something even if it is risky
- The last straw: the final thing that finally changed the situation
- A taste of (your) own medicine: do something to someone who has been doing that thing to show them how it feels, get revenge on them
2. Change the cliches to plain speech
The reason I would suggest doing this is to see how the writing looks without any idioms in it. Here is the same paragraph with all the idioms taken out:
Della groaned at the cheerleaders walking up the hall. Thin, blonde girls were so common. Every so often, Della had the urge try out for the squad, but usually she just resented them. Heidi, the head cheerleader bumped Della as she passed by, knocking her into the lockers. Enough, Della thought. She was going to show Heidi and the other cheerleaders what it felt like to be on the other side of the bullying.
3. Decide where you want idiomatic language
Word pictures are great for emphasizing an idea in a very vivid way. Thinking about what points you really want to emphasize. Remember that if you emphasize everything than nothing is emphasized, so just choose a few. In the above example, let’s choose two:
- Thin blonde girls are very common (this shows Della’s resentment that she doesn’t look like that)
- She is going to get revenge on them
4. Decide what picture you want to give the reader
As I said earlier, it’s important to use a mental image that fits with the story theme. Of course, this is just a paragraph so we don’t know the whole story but this scene takes place in school, so think how you could emphasize how common thin, blond girls in a school setting. Here is one idea.
Della could throw her math textbook at random in the cafeteria and she would probably hit a thin, blond girl right in the middle of her perfectly moisturized forehead.
This is long, but it creates a picture of Della closing her eyes and flinging a heavy hardcover book across the lunch room and whacking some poor girl in the head. It’s an absurd picture, but it is a memorable way of saying “thin, blond girls are very common”
Now let’s look at how to create a picture of getting revenge or showing someone how it felt to be picked on. What are some situations where this might happen at school? Kids might get picked on in gym class, so you could say, “Della would show Heidi what is was like to be a freshman in gym class.”
The problem with this is that it is a very plausible image. The reader will think, “wait, was Della a freshman in gym class?” since this could have happened in the story. Plus, freshman don’t have gym class with seniors so there is not the same bullying between big and small kids going on.
Let’s say that in the story Della and Heidi work at an animal shelter together, which would give you a chance to develop their relationship anyway. You could say, “Della would show Heidi what it was like to be the small dog in the pound” since that would point back to that part of the story. However, you will have to have talked about that part of the story or this will seem a bit random.
Here are the points I want you to remember.
- Think about the words and expression you use. Make sure the word pictures you are making are suitable for your story.
- If you make your own word pictures, make sure they are suitable but also that the meaning makes sense.
The best way to know this is to show your writing to someone else. It might make sense to you but if you show it to someone else and they don’t understand, then you might need to change it.
Now it’s your turn
- Pay attention as you are reading and see what idioms the writer uses. What are the word pictures they create? How they help to strengthen the story (or do they)?
- Look at a story you have written. Have you used cliches that would be good to replace or change? Do the idioms you use create the word pictures you want them to?
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.