Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

To Cliché or Not to Cliché

A cliché is generally defined as a phrase that is overused, betraying a lack of originality. And for the most part, speaking or writing with clichés should be avoided like the plague. But in today’s world, I’m not certain clichés are the poison they’ve been deemed to be by the literary elites.

First of all, except for the most egregious examples, it can be difficult to ascertain exactly what constitutes a cliché. Phrases that were once original and clever are often repeated to the point that they become clichés, but they can then go out of common usage and become fresh again years later.

One of the dictionary definitions for a cliché is an old chestnut. But when is the last time you heard that phrase? I would venture it was quite some time ago. In fact, if you call something an old chestnut nowadays, most people will look at you in confusion.

But even aside from that, another reason clichés aren’t the problem they used to be is that most people read far less than they used to. They might read 3 or 4 books a year – compared to thirty years ago, for example, when they might have read 15 or 20.

As a result, when they read a familiar phrase, they don’t think of it as tired and overused. They think, “Oh, yes, I know what the author is trying to convey here. I’ve heard that expression before. Clever.”

This is not to say that one should use clichés often or even that one should aim to use clichés at all. It’s still wise policy to find creative ways to express yourself as a writer so that what your reader sees is something fresh.

But it also depends on what your goal is: if you are writing for a literary audience, shun clichés with every fiber of your being; if you are writing popular fiction, seeking to sell your work to the masses, a few timely placed clichés can give your novel a leg up by appealing to the familiar in your readers.

So clichés aren’t the death knell some have argued they are. If your story is fresh, if your characters are believable, if you have created a hook that readers find difficult to resist, then a few clichés aren’t going to take your book from success to failure.

But if you’re just re-writing pulp fiction — your prostitute with the heart of gold is forced to care for the precocious orphan while fending off the advances of the evil banker — and if you’ve loaded your story with cliché after cliché, then you’ve got a problem.

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