I watch enough baseball and basketball on television to be able to recognize a cliche when I hear it. You can’t get through a couple of innings without beginning to suffer from listener nausea as the play-by-play broadcaster and his “color” sidekick exhaust their supply of tired, used, and wrinkled phrases which were fun at one time but have become old and should be retired.
The use of cliches is sports broadcasting comes with the territory. There are long periods of inactivity needing to be filled with commentary to keep the viewer entertained. One way to do that, evidently, is to resort to repetition and attempts to be clever. If the commentator can say something that is quite evident, or that has already been said, but can be repeated using different terms, go for it! That’s where cliches come into play.
Writers have to be careful about resorting to cliches, as well. It’s easy to slip into a well-worn phrase to describe a moment. The once-comical, but now juvenile and amateurish “It was a dark and stormy night” and its attempted variations is a cover-shutting phenomenon if there ever was one.
But even beyond this easily-recognized antique, there are other cliches which are too tempting for the emerging author. We have to guard against them and rely upon good editing to avoid being guilty of slipping into sloppy writing. One of my mentors has suggested that we spend too much time on adjectives, for instance, and not enough on nouns and verbs. That’s when we get careless and find ourselves wallowing in age-worn terms. The idea is to move the story along, not get bogged down in descriptive phrases which may, or may not, help the reader make a connection to the work.
It is an awe-filled moment when a reader comes upon an original expression which captures the response the author intended and cements it in one’s mind. If that well-received phrase is repeated, however, it loses its sparkle and the awe is gone. One of the best examples of a charged phrase is the use of the word “Plastics” in the classic screenplay The Graduate. It is powerful because of its spontaneity and simplicity, cutting into the tension of the moment in a way that the viewer could never have anticipated. If repeated by a writer in order to achieve a similar effect, however, it is trite and juvenile. It has become a cliche.
Writing is hard work. As a fledgling writer I have discovered just how hard it is and struggle all the time in attempting to put on paper (a screen in this case) words that are filled with life and which will resonate with the reader. I have files filled with first drafts, second drafts, and some up to the fifth or sixth drafts. Editing for such things as cliches and their sibling flaws is frustrating, time consuming, and requires the right mind set. That mind set is not easily created. When it is achieved it is magic.
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