How to cut the clichés
This week I had to critique a piece of creative writing. (Don’t worry – I promise it wasn’t from an OCA student). It contained the following phrases: ‘stopped in my tracks’, ‘wended my way’ and ‘heart skipped a beat’. My cliché-alarm started to ring. I got out the on-screen equivalent of the red pen (the dreaded ‘tracking’) and turned the script into a bit of a bloodbath. Bloodbath – there’s another one!
Clichés are sneaky little things. They creep into writing as soon as a writer drops their guard (uh-oh) and if you’re not careful they can spread like wildfire (that’s enough clichés – Ed).
Do they matter? Of course they do. Sometimes new writers can’t understand why they shouldn’t use a phrase that’s been perfectly serviceable for so long. They get particularly defensive about dialogue (‘That’s what he would say!’). But then, who wants to read prose that is made up of phrases so well-worn as to be meaningless?
So the next question is: how do we get rid of them? For the answer, I turn to drama. It’s a similar technique to when I want to show an emotion, rather than tell it. I act it out – in my head or often, for real, as long as no one’s watching.
Let’s say I’m writing the story of Little Red Riding Hood and I get to the part where she is in the forest and the wolf steps out in front of her. She gets quite a shock. It’s tempting to allow the phrase ‘her heart skipped a beat’ to slide onto the page. That’s the trouble with clichés – they flow very easily, so they are the lazy writer’s friend.
What I would do here is imagine myself in the same scenario. I’m Red Riding Hood, wandering through the woods (not ‘wending’, for sure) and picking flowers – only I’ve just noticed that it’s getting dark and – yikes! There’s a wolf.
What would I do? Freeze, probably. How would my body respond? My skin would prickle. I’d sweat. My heartbeat would quicken. Depending on how sure I was that I was about to be eaten alive, my reaction might be even more extreme. Better to describe those responses than tell the reader I’m scared.
Then the writer has to take it a little further. Pounding hearts and frozen limbs have all been done (note: I resist adding ‘to death’). How was my heartbeat? Perhaps it was struggling like a bird in a trap. Perhaps it punched my chest to remind me to run. It may take a bit of work, but there will be a way to describe fear without resorting to the well-worn and the hackneyed.
It’s the same with dialogue. Yes, we do use clichés when we chat, but sounding ‘real’ is only a very small part of the writer’s job. Above all, clichés are boring: so ask yourself what you are really trying to say. Then ask: how can you say it better?
What’s the cliché that drives you mad? And how do you get rid of cliché in your own writing?