Cliché – “make like a tree and get outta here”

Am I the only one who remembers Biff Tannen from Back to the Future saying this? I remember how hard I laughed because, well, Biff was such a moron. He couldn’t even get a single cliché right. Had Biff been a writer it would have been to his advantage.

I’ve come to think of clichés as the soft underbelly to lazy, unimaginative writing. Even the beagle isn’t impervious. Just yesterday she sat on her perch [which is my desk] and watched the hot German Shepherd saunter past. “Le sigh,” she said, “that Klaus makes my knees go weak.”

“Beagle,” sez I, “you don’t have knees, so how can they go weak? And furthermore, is that the best you can do – belt out a cliché that’s as old as the hills and twice as dusty?”

“Hah, talk about cliché,” she snorted. Ok, she got me.

Cliché becomes so because it’s used as a catch-all phrase. If there is an emotion or reaction, there are particular phrases that are used over and over to cover it. Instead of using the weak knees cliché, try something else.

“Every time she sees Antonio Banderas, the joints in her knees turn to grape jelly.”

“Although Antonio rebuffed her offers of having his love child, she still loved him. She always would. But now seeing him would make the cartilage in her knees dissolve like bitter acid.”

Whenever I see clichés in writing, I always wonder about the level of the author’s writing skills. We’re supposed to be clever word slingers, so why on earth would we discolor our writing by using someone else’s overused, tired, worn-out phrase?

“Her heart raced.”

Oh, how I hate this particular sentence. It’s a cop out. Come on, dig deeper. Ostensibly we all know what it’s like to be in love, so internalize this so you can come up with something that is unique, yet hits the right note.

I think many writers have trouble expressing feelings or reactions because they aren’t putting themselves into the scene. Whenever I need to dig into emotions in my writing, I insert myself into that situation and let those emotions wash over me. How do I feel? How is my body reacting? Am I sweating? Do my teeth itch? Am I suddenly more aware of my surroundings? If so, what do I see? Smell? Hear?

Now, a cliché thought may pop up into what masquerades as my brain, but I force myself to think way outside the box in order to avoid expressing anything that’s been said over and over in many other writings. Agents and editors seek those out like a tax man armed with the calculator of death in search of a juicy audit and a victim with weak bowels.

Mr. McDreamy makes every woman’s knees go weak, and a generic one size does not fit all, so don’t keep using the same phrase to signify an emotion or feeling. Fire up those synapses and get in touch with your own emotions. Besides, when was the last time a hot hunk of manmeat really made your knees go weak? I’m an old bat, and the only thing that weakened my knees over the years was that eighteen mile bike ride – and I still haven’t forgiven The Hubby for it.

10 Responses to Cliché – “make like a tree and get outta here”

  1. Sol Stein calls this “writing from the top of your head.” As he says, the top of your head is good for growing hair, not for writing.

    Cliche-ridden writing is the fastest way to tell an editor that you’re a lazy, top -of -the- head writer. Can you say rejection, anyone?

  2. catwoods says:

    LOL! The bike ride would certainly force me into a knee replacement far quicker than a hunk o’man meat.

    I think what makes cliches so hard to catch is that we speak them constantly. Our writer’s ears have become immune to them and it takes a concerted effort to purge our manuscripts of them.

    One of my favorite mansucripts is a chapter book about pirates. Changing cliched sayings into their nautical counterparts was super fun. I even learned to curse appropriately: Halibut, tuna and rotten mackeral fins!

  3. Cat: too funny. When I swear, those terms don’t normally come to mind – unless I’m participating in Talk Like A Pirate Day. Argggh, matey McBeagle, avast and walk ye to the plank!

  4. Frank says:

    “Thanks” to all the new technology that invites social interaction of a written nature, there are more cliches than ever. I sometimes hesitate to use an inventive phrase of my own online out of fear that when I want to use it in a piece of writing that might actually make me some coin, I’ll see Vanna turning over the letters. On the other hand, I came up with the term “inferactive writing” and included it in a few academic pieces ( 10, 15 years ago) and have never seen its reappearance even once by others.

  5. John Quirk says:

    We have a young lady at work who’s a lot like Biff Tannen… her corker today was “that’s taken a huge cloud off my shoulders…”
    Inspired.

  6. Oh geez, John, that is hysterical.

  7. John Quirk says:

    I think her best was “not enough room in here to skin a cat”. Entire office blurted tea and assorted biscuits over keyboards.

  8. LOL. Oh, I need one of her in the office. Does she have any idea how badly she blunders?

  9. John Quirk says:

    To be fair, she does – she often realises seconds after she says something and laughs at herself. But, yes, every office should have someone like that 😉

  10. CatWake says:

    Just wanted to say, Lynn, that reading this blog post last week and letting it simmer in my backbrain caused me to write one of my favorite lines ever when I sat down at the keyboard yesterday. Never would have thought of rescuing cliche with the device of the clever twist. Awesome.

    Not as awesome as “not enough room in here to skin a cat” … But then, so few things ARE.

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