Clichés are overused, stereotyped expressions that have lost their force and impact. If I come across a cliché in an otherwise original and well-written piece of work, I find that it can jar. It just reminds me of awkward post-match interviews and phatic communion on public transport. The overuse of one of these phrases causes the sentiment to be lost as they can seem impersonal and insincere. Additionally, they can indicate a lack of vocabulary or careful thought and are not always exactly appropriate. They come in five main types:
1. Clichés can take the form of similes, for example, ‘sick as a parrot’ or ‘as bold as brass’. I would recommend avoiding these in your writing because they are so well-used.
2. They can also be metaphors: ‘the long arm of the law’; ‘a baptism of fire’ and ‘he’s got an ace up his sleeve’.
3. Some proverbs and quotations have become clichés from overuse, including, ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ and ‘the blind leading the blind’.
4. Phrases and idioms can also become perhaps too widely repeated: ‘last but not least’, ‘age before beauty’ and ‘adding insult to injury’.
5. Also beware of excessive use of common adjective-noun pairings, for example, ‘timeless classic’, ‘burning question’ and ‘graphic description’.
They can be an effective device when used in particular ways. Most obviously, a well-used cliché can create a familiar, shared image that your readers can relate to, ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ for example. They can also be used in direct speech; which clichés they use can tell the reader a lot about a character.
There’s a section in Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush where clichés are used cleverly as the characters of Saint and Kim, two smoking, swearing fifteen year olds ironically observe of younger teens, ‘Kids today, eh?’ and make each other laugh by employing adopted phrases such as ‘rites of passage’ and ‘when you need me, call me!’.
Clichés can be great for humour. I personally enjoy it when the literal meaning makes its metaphorical use nonsensical: ‘If they make bungee jumping illegal, they’ll drive it underground’. Another favourite of mine is ‘so I turned around and said to him’; when used repeatedly, I can’t help but imagine the speaker pirouetting continually!
A lot of jokes are based on subverting the expected wording to a cliché with word play. A chicken crossing the road: poultry in motion! When you’ve seen one shopping centre, you’ve seen a mall!
If you’re unsure whether to use a cliché, I recommend instead coming up with your own original metaphor or simile for the phenomenon. By creating a new, accurate expression you will give the reader a satisfying and delightful feeling of recognition. Having the imagination and vocabulary to describe something in an original, yet instantly relatable way is a great skill to develop as an author.
I’ll leave you on a final joke: Why did the chilly Inuits’ boat sink when they lit a fire in it? Because you can’t have your kayak and heat it too!