February 21, 2017
I'll Have a Cliché with a Twist, Please
My wife murders clichés. But because these are unpremeditated, we should probably reduce the charges to manslaughter.
Once, after a meeting, she was upset that the real issues had not been addressed. "There's a pink elephant on the table," she told me emphatically.
"You mean, 'There's an elephant in the room,'" I offered helpfully.
"No," she replied, "my elephant is pink and it is definitely on the table!"
On another occasion she could tell I was about to say something that could get me in trouble. "You are treading on thin ground, Le Peau!" she warned me. Well, at least if I fell through I wouldn't be in danger of drowning.
Every writing teacher, every book on writing tells us to avoid clichés, those turns of phrase that are so familiar they have lost all color and have no punch left in them. They have become bland and ineffective. The crutch of bad writers. Such advice has even turned into a cliché itself: "Avoid clichés like the plague."
Not only are clichés boring, they can also be problematic if misused. I was reading a recent fantasy novel about an imaginary world that was basically Medieval in nature. At one point a character offers the advice, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth." Really? Is it possible that the exact same proverb developed in this alternate world as ours? To combat this, Tolkien created dozens of his own such as "The wise speak only of what they know."
Writers and speakers can (and largely should) just cut clichés, but there are two ways to use them effectively. One is to give them a twist. Suppose you are writing a detective novel. Your main character might say, "This guy had been a problem to me for years. As I held the gun I thought about how good it would feel to put him out of my misery." By switching one word, his to my, we give the cliché a twist and make it fresh again, hopefully bringing a smile to the reader.
To contrast something effective in a small way with something big that is unnecessary and counterproductive, try, "Better to light a candle than burn down the whole house."
A second way to make a stale expression much less so is to extend the metaphor the cliché suggests. That's what happens in the first two sentences above. "Murdering a cliché" is not quite a cliché, but it is a somewhat tired metaphor. By extending the metaphor to include manslaughter, we give it a good shot of caffeine.
Perhaps you want to consider the advantages of being sure to get something now versus the slim chance of getting everything later. This might do the trick: "Maybe you shouldn't count your chickens before they hatch, but at least you can have some eggs for breakfast."
If you want to express your dislike for someone, try this: "I held her at arm's length, wishing my arm was longer."
I had a teacher who said, "Just because it's a cliché doesn't mean it's not true." Clichés begin as hard-won pearls of wisdom that have become hidden in shells of overuse. But if we can give a cliché a twist, perhaps it can become the best of all possible pearls.
Credits. Elephant: www.clipartpanda.com/ Eggs: Andrew Le Peau