Clichés, like just about any other biological thing, can be placed on a nearly bell-shaped curve. With clichés, there are a few outliers on the left tail that are essential to basic communication, and a few on the right that actually deserve a speck of a writer’s attention.
Some from the left tail we don’t even call clichés:
“In other words…”
“If only I could have…”
“I’m sorry, but…”
“I love you.”
Here’s a cliché of sorts from the right tail of their bell curve:
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
You probably recognize this from a political speech by FDR. If you use it in a story, your editor (I wish I had one) may balk and write, “cliché” beside it with three exclamation points to grind your limbic system into eternal shame.
FDR’s words are relevant to writers who are afraid of clichés.
I was in high school when I first felt the dark power of cliché purging. I didn’t know what the teacher meant by the word, but pretended to get it because her body language was telling me to feel sheepish, and I didn’t want to add to that by admitting I was an illiterate slug.
Years later, the many books I read on writing fiction stressed the “poisonous” nature of clichés and their power to kill anything living for pages around.
The books needed only to warn me once.
The fear of fear itself can be strong, but the fear of humiliation is stronger.
One time I literally put my life in danger just to avoid humiliating myself in front of an unseen hunter who had fired his shotgun into the fog at birds that must have been near me. I was too worried about embarrassment to shout, “Don’t shoot!” I didn’t say a word. And now I’m too ashamed to tell you all the details.
Needless to say, some fearful people will kill the flow of their writing to avoid clichés and that peculiar flavor of humiliation.
Forget cliché purging, already. Writing spell-binding stories requires every neuron in your head. If you keep some neurons busy hunting self-consciously for clichés, you’re diminishing the quality of your work. Your focus has to shift back and forth from creativity to self-defense.
The more you focus on the words, the more you ignore the magic.
Of course, there are those who have read so much fiction that “the story” is no longer where magic lies for them.
My former brother-in-law, a well-read man, used to find a transcendent euphoria in an ethereal quality of the words themselves. Their rhythm, their flow.
It’s not that I can’t relate. I love some of Robert Zimmerman’s (Dylan’s) lyrics for similar reasons (feelings) that I can’t put my fingers on. This passage, for example, is magic to me – from One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)…
“and I told you as you clawed out my eyes that I never really meant to do you any harm.”
And this, from Visions of Johanna…
“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.”
To me, the magic of words is found primarily in poetry, while the magic of a story lies almost entirely in its characters and the grip of the plot on their lives.
I can imagine that a cliché might poison a poem.
I doubt that a cliché could give a sniffle to a page-turning novel. Maybe an army of clichés could.
But I know from personal experience that cliché purging produces a concrete, word-conscious and timid writing session where nothing comes to life.
M. Talmage Moorehead