Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Original Clichés

Now there’s an oxymoron ‘if ever I saw one’ – and, hey, would you believe it, I’ve used a cliché already. As any author will tell you, the damn things sneak in everywhere.

I have never understood why Bill Gates didn’t include a cliché finder in his Word package – and I have never understood why editors hate them so much. Clichés are part of the English language and most of us use them without even noticing. It has been ‘drummed into us’ that our writing should be original, but every word we use has been used by someone else.

Some time ago I tried to think up new phrases for old clichés. A task that is almost impossible and exceedingly frustrating. I did manage to come up with ‘about as useful as a knitted bucket’, ‘bleeding like a motorway rabbit’, and ‘the deep breath before the scream’ but I doubt they will ‘go down in history’.

The Internet can turn an original phrase into a cliché in a matter of seconds, so even if an author is clever enough to think up a brilliant new descriptive expression, it will probably be a cliché by the time the book is published.

Some new clichés (is that another oxymoron?) have already earned their place in the reference books. ‘The elephant in the room’ is one of my favourites – but, of course, I can never use it because it is now a cliché. One of the best I came across recently, and one I hadn’t heard before, was ‘as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs’. But you can’t use that either because I’ve just told you about it.

What would the thriller writer do if he couldn’t arm his hero ‘to the teeth’ before ‘all hell breaks loose’? The romance writer’s hero is often ‘blown away’ by his first sight of the heroine, while she thinks he has a smile ‘to die for’. Most of us know exactly what these phrases mean and don’t mind them a bit. In our novellas the lovers have to get together before the end or our readers would kill us, and sometimes a predictable ‘happy ending’ is as comforting as a warm blanket, even if it is a cliché.

Clichés are fine in conversation, because that’s the way people talk, but when writing a descriptive passage we have to use our imagination – not someone else’s.

All my books are available in the libraries and on line at Amazon, but please don’t look for clichés. I am sure you’ll find a lot of them. 

Fay Cunningham


  1. Finding original phrases isn't always a piece of cake and a lot of advice can be as clear as mud. However you've put a very sensible take on this potential storm in a teacup.
    Thanks Fay.

  2. Oh this struck a chord with me, Fay. But you can't teach an old dog new tricks, so I'm pretty sure I'll be using cliches in my writing till the cows come home.

  3. When I worked in the big bad world of business I invented the term 'puppy strangler' for the ruthless asset strippers.

    I find cliches hardest to avoid in the rude bits of stories. I mean we all know that none of us have flowers or petals in our lady bits, and if any of us actually blossom then we should go to the doctor straight away, but if you stray away from that, you're into dangerous territory.

  4. Isn't it horses for courses? Or, what's sauce for the goose...? I did write a character who thought in well known maxims but then adapted them to suit. So she might say to herself, "if a stitch in time saves nine, I'd better mend that torn vest now" or "Every cloud has a silver lining but it does really look like it will rain."

  5. I think romance writing is also full of situational cliches. For example the well-used 'hate at first sight' that turns into love. The misunderstanding that keeps them apart.

    But the fact is that fans of romance like these cliches(and so does Maggie Seed, she told me). They're comforting to them. They may know what's going to happen, but that's what they want when they pick up a book. Mills and Boon have done well by giving readers exactly what they want and expect.

    The trick is to throw in a few surprises along the way so that even if the outcome is certain, the reader can have the odd moment of 'oh I didn't see that coming'.

  6. I've invented a few for my Regency novellas - 'as drunk as a wheelbarrow' was one - but maybe someone had already used it? As Fay says every word has been used by someone else.

  7. I like 'as drunk as a wheelbarrow'. It reminds me of Michael McIntyre's skit on drunkeness, where he said that you could say 'I'm bunaglowed' instead of 'I'm trollied' and people would still know what you meant.

  8. Oh Marguerite, love the 'puppy strangler' phrase - that says it all. You're also so right about the writing of smut - a difficult genre in which to be original without people not knowing what the hell the author is going on about! Drunk as a wheelbarrow is brilliant. Thanks for the post Fay, having fun with words is part of the joy of writing and we've had some fun with your post. I personally love the way P G Wodehouse finds new ways of saying things, 'Jeeves trickled in' is one of my favourites. But I say piffle to those who don't like cliches, sometimes they just hit the nail on the head - oooops!

  9. Heard the other day, every silver lining has a cloud. I liked that one!
    I love oxymorons too. Galloping apathy is one of favourites and often used in speech, by me.
    We could harldy exist these days without a cliche or two.

  10. Dear Fay

    I published a volume of poetry called 'Original Cliches' in May 1998. I invented the phrase and am unaware of anyone beating me to it. 'Every silver lining has a cloud' is also one of my 'Aphorisms After Oscar' published in April 2009. I have published a great deal of original stuff on the internet which has immediately been copied by other people. I wouldn't mind but I never ever get any credit for it!

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish