Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

That’s as trite as a cliché!

In reading Bill Walsh’s wonderful “The Elephants of Style” (full review to come), I was struck by a quote he reproduced on clichés: they are “first-draft placeholders.” The idea is that you use the phrasing that leaps to mind to hold the idea of what you want to say, and then when you go back and revise, you come up with something more original.

I like that thought.

Of course, clichés have other uses too. Sometimes a cliché really is the best way to say something, and you should leave it be. Sometimes you can use the reader’s expectations of a cliché to deliver a little twist, one of the pleasures people get from writing. For instance, I knew I was going to like the movie “Garden State” when it began with Zach Braff looking in the mirror and the voiceover: “Some mornings, I don’t recognize my own toothbrush.” It was paced perfectly to bring up the expectation that he was going to say “my own face.” Which would have been fine, an okay opening to a movie. A little predictable, but it sets expectations about where you’re going.

The problem with it is that he just said, “toothbrush” to make it jarring and funny. It didn’t really mean anything. If he’d gone on and had a story about how there was a relationship where the woman kept switching toothbrushes on him, then the line would’ve been perfect. As it was, it gave me enough of a laugh that I thought, “hey, this is going to be fun.”

If you do use clichés as first-draft placeholders, here’s another thought. The usual rule in revising is to trim out whatever is noticeable or distracting from the story. Clichés, though, can do exactly the opposite: make you glide over passages where you’d like the reader to linger. You need to walk a line between being too distracting and being too formulaic, and only you know where that line is. Would you rather say, “he was a mountain of a man” or “he stood a lofty six feet tall, muscles straining at the bonds of his flannel shirt”? The first is a cliché, but it conveys the sense of him well. The second is more distinctive but also draws attention to individual details, which you may not want to do.

Be aware of clichés; don’t be afraid of them. Use them when appropriate, twist them when necessary. Just don’t skewer them, or turn them on their heads–those are clichés too.

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