Friday, June 19, 2009

Why you need cliches like you need a hole in the head

(Cross-posted from my LiveJournal, swords_and_pens)

Overheard bit of dialog from a kids' program from another room:

"Those taste like sweat socks. And not the good kind."

I like the cadence of this line, and how it plays against usual adult expectations. The slow burn of the "eww" factor is nicely achieved, too.

Yes, it's a campy little line, and not a particularly challenging one in terms of construction (we've seen the form a million times: "cliche + pause + qualifier that makes the cliche worse"); but it does what it sets out to do well. That it hits both the target audience and the adult in the other room speaks to its success, I think

Is there a writing take-away here? If pushed, I'd have to say that even a tired form can be used to good effect if approached in the right manner. It's easy to stumble with well-worn constructions, though, so the writer needs to be wary: one person's clever turn is another's crashing failure. Cliches can occasionally become new and interesting when they are put in a different habitat and given a new coat of feathers; but not always.
Know what you are trying to do with the turn of phrase and try to get as much work out of it as you can. Layers can be your friend here: they give added heft to what otherwise might come off as a feather-light line. Just don't over do it An over-worked line (and especially a ill-used cliche) can quickly turn into an unintentional literary farce, which is worse than original one-off in many ways

So, am I defending cliches? In a sense, I suppose I am. Tradition (not to mention Strunk & White, from what I recall) says we should eschew cliches and well-worn turns of phrase. Terms like "lazy writing" and "muddy prose" come back to me from my days of college composition -- phrases beat into me so hard that it's tough to ignore them. But I am a genre writer, and what's more, I write in a loose, quick style that tends to blend noire and adventure and, occasionally, a comelier turn of phrase. (Please note: I am not disparaging genre writers of any form, nor saying their writing is less worthy or more sloppy. I am simply saying we sometimes have a bit more latitude when it comes to style than some other forms.) For me, there are times when cliche, when the "short-cut" or "lazy writing", can do more work (and sometimes, more complex work) than a carefully crafted string of prose.
Cliches are, after all, what they are because everyone knows what they mean. They are a common, if over-used, touch point. The trick, as a writer, is knowing when a cliche is just a cliche, and when it can be something more.

By no means am I saying that, as writers, we should all run out and start using cliches like they are going out of style. That would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But what I am saying is, like so many other "rules" of writing, the use of well-worn turns of phrase and hackneyed constructions can have a place in a piece of writing -- it just has to be used with care and the understanding that, just like nitroglycerin in the old westerns (a well-used cinematic cliche in its day), it can blow up in your face if you aren't careful about how you handle it.


Paul Lamb said...

I consider all of those "rule" to be more like "tools." I'll take them from the box and use them when I need them, but they aren't in charge.

Douglas Hulick said...

Paul: Exactly. This post wasn't meant to become a "there are no rules" ramble, but as I typed, I realized cliches are one of those things people have an almost habitual reaction towards, usually in the negative. Hence, the riff.

I like the tools vs. rules distinction, too. I think it sums it up better, and in far fewer words than I managed. :)

Shawn Enderlin said...

the world in my book is too different from ours for most of the more familiar cliches to work so always get all excited whenever i get to use one. :-)

i suppose, however, not being able to use them often keeps me out of trouble!