Idiom or Cliché?

We use clichés all the time when we’re speaking. They are a form of shorthand for an idea that might need to be explained. Anyone knows what “the ball is in your court” means, even if they don’t play tennis. Clichés can also be used as humor, since the idea that a cliché conveys can be used as a clever association or an ironic counterpart. In other words, the reason that clichés persist, despite our common scorn, is because they are useful.

Unfortunately, they can also be a lazy form of writing. I see them often employed in manuscripts that are written in haste. You are writing, trying to get ideas out, and a cliché springs to mind. They are easy to grab, mentally, and they may very well convey what you mean. Depending on the writer, they may actually be more succinctly phrased than the surrounding material. Their kernel-like clarity is why they were retained in common speech originally.

Yet a cliché is also a borrowed piece of text. To me, that is the greatest sin. If you look at the quotation that ends this post, you’ll see exactly what I mean. You are trying to express yourself. You and no one else. You know about all those other books on all those shelves, and you are carving out a new legacy. So why would you want to clutter up your prose with the ideas of someone else?

One other factor to consider is the fatigue a reader experiences. The weariness felt from encountering the familiar enervates your prose. The reader experiences a subtle reaction: oh, a cliché. That’s sort of boring. You add up enough of them, and the reader comes to feel that your book isn’t special or original at all. You’re always taking shortcuts.

Before this becomes a blanket condemnation, the way you expected an editor would go, we should return to the idea of idioms used in speech. You do want your dialogue to be natural, and people do use clichés a lot. If you were to turn a common phrase into some tortured construction just to avoid using a cliché, it would sound artificial. If you are selective enough, a cliché will subside in usage to its proper place: a minor, idiomatic tool in your arsenal.

Exercise: Comb your latest draft for clichés. Where are they being used? Unless the point of view voice is so chatty that the narrative seems but an extension of dialogue, you might want to limit them to dialogue. Even then, could one character be more given to using them? How about someone very smart but so unoriginal that their intelligence only extends to spouting a wider variety of clichés?

“Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself.”
—James F. Stephan

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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