The very first piece of advice that I remember anyone giving me about writing was, “Avoid cliché.” I was ten. I had to look up “cliché”. So now I have a question.
A cliché is a word or phrase so worn out by overuse that it has deteriorated until it is meaningless. It may once have been striking. Today it is white noise.
The gentle reader ignores it. The ungentle critic berates the writer for laziness and lack of originality.
Dickens got away with “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done,” because he thought of it first. After that it became popular, then heard widely, then untouchable by any writer with pretensions to respectability.
Cliché, the Reader’s Friend?
Yet there is a reason that many of these phrases have become “over-used”. They embody, often with telling economy, a recognisable truth. They communicate.
And originality can be overrated. I could create a wholly original language. Let us say I called a mug of tea a gluglug because I thought it felt and sounded right. What would that say to other English speakers? Let us conjugate:
- I am original.
- You are endearingly eccentric.
- She has lost her marbles.
What would happen if I asked for a gluglug in Starbucks? Embarrassed laughter and a barista looking for rescue.
Perfect Placing of the Cliché
À propos conjugate — I remember fondly the delicious scene in South Pacific where glamorous Émile de Becque and bubbly Nellie Forbush from Arkansas walk round each other, painfully aware of their failings as a suitable companion for the other. not knowing what to say.
“I have many books here,” he says at last, desperately. “Marcel Proust? Anatole France? Did you study French at school?”
“Oh, yes,” says Nellie, because she did.
“So you speak French?”
“No. I can maybe conjugate a few verbs.”
It is the absolute antithesis of the cliché romantic scene. They’re strongly attracted but awkward, clumsy and unconfident. He was also undisguisably middle-aged, equally compelled and daunted by her youth.
And then he breaks into Some Enchanted Evening, a ballad about one of the acknowledged clichés of the romantic genre, the recognition of the stranger-beloved at first sight across a crowded room.
The Cliché of That Look
One of you is talking. Or listening. Or pouring wine.
The other one looks up. Your eyes meet. The focus narrows to just that one person. And you both know.
It may be a shared joke. It may be overwhelming sexual attraction. It may even be love, true love — or something darker. But you both know there is more to come.
And the room chatters on unaware of it.
Same Old, Same Old — Or Is It?
It’s been around a long time, that look. In song, story and Shakespeare.
“At the first sight they have changed eyes,” says Prospero gleefully, as his daughter encounters her first people and fixes instantly on the teenage hunk.
“A thousand people crammed in one place, the only face is you,” sang Randy Edelman in one of those songs-with-a-story that I love so much.
And in the 1995 movie we have Sabrina, Louis, a Paris café, an exchange of looks and suddenly the attraction is explicit and going somewhere. He’s gone over to talk to friends, sees her considering him, stumbles, raises a questioning eyebrow, tries to go back to what he was saying but now he has seen her looking and that is where he’s focused, no choice about it. It’s a beautifully observed little moment in one of my favourite films.
So yes, familiar. Commonplace, even. Because it happens in real life. Watching that scene in Sabrina, I see friends. Heck, I see myself.
THE CLICHÉ QUESTION
So here’s my question. I have a scene at the back of my mind. It’s not out in the light yet. I could still let it go. But it’s getting closer all the time. Two people, a crowd, That Look …
Do I let it continue to grow? Or smother it now because it’s too much of a cliché? Advice, please!