It’s been awhile since my last cliché post, so I thought I’d look at the temptation aspect of clichés, and why writers are drawn to using them when faced with tough description choices.
The way I see it, there are four main reasons to reach for the Poisoned Apple and chow down on it:
1) Clichéd expressions and descriptions convey an immediate, recognizable picture to the reader. Why bother to have a paragraph of description when ‘a dark and stormy night’ will do?
At first glance, this could seem like good advice. After all, aren’t we always told to streamline our writing in order to keep the reader interested and the pace moving forward? The thing to remember here is why people read in the first place. They aren’t looking for a rehashing of the mundane, to experience the same-old, same old. They read to be transported into something new, to partake in a unique and gratifying experience.
If we fill their senses with cliché after cliché to get a point across or describe a scene, then we fail as writers. This is why the voice of a story is so important–it conveys a sense of authenticity to our writing. If our prose is unique and true, then we can show a familiar setting, circumstance or event to a reader in a way that remains fresh and new.
2) Using a hackneyed expression is way easier than trying to come up with something new. Besides, all the good descriptions have already been written, so why even try to come up with something fresh?
The problem with hackneyed expressions is that we’ve heard them all before. They become lifeless and do nothing to evoke the reader’s senses, so using them to describe is counter-productive. Worse, some are so overused that seeing them in written form will pull the reader right out of the story AND make them want to scratch their own eyes out.
As writers we need to describe in a way that offers a fresh image to the reader. The moment they read the first word, an author has made a promise: to offer them a new experience. Keeping our expressions and descriptions our own is how we make good on that promise. It can be difficult at times to be original, but never is it impossible.
3) Based on unique experiences, everyone has a different way of seeing something. If I describe something specifically, it will alienate my readers because they will not see it the same way. Better to stick with language and descriptions that are easily recognizable.
There are times where clichés can be used (and I’ll get into that in another post). However, we should never let the fear of alienating the reader through our own brand of showing get in the way of writing. Everyone has different tastes and different ways of seeing things, true, but so do we. Readers choose our books because they want to experience our viewpoint–that’s our job, to give them a glimpse of what we see.
This is also why we take care to not describe everything in exhaustive detail…the reader’s own imagination will fill in the blanks and becomes part of the experience. It makes them feel involved. Often a few fingernail sensory details are all the reader needs.
4) Some concepts are abstract and too hard to show, like emotions. Better to use a cliché or two than bog down the book with inadequate misfires as we try to convey exactly how a character is feeling. Clichés are familiar and can be comforting.
This is true…if you’re writing text for a greeting card company. Rarely are there circumstances where some earnest thought won’t garner the right words to get across a particular emotion or circumstance. (I hope that we’ve proven that with our Emotion Thesaurus!) Coming up with fresh descriptive language, metaphors and similes can be a challenge, but succeeding is the reward of writing. Never shortchange the reader or yourself by stopping once you hit an easy answer to a descriptive woe.
Can you think of other reasons why writers are tempted to use clichés when they know they shouldn’t? What’s your biggest struggle as far as keeping away from the cliché?
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.