I see you all roll your eyes at the title, but it got you here didn’t it? Of course it’s likely to deter as many people as it attracts. That’s the dichotomy of the cliché. We are drawn to them because they are clever. We are repelled because of their overuse and fifty shades is fast becoming a cliché of modern times.
The French word, cliché, is generally defined as a phrase or opinion that is overused and lacks original thought. Its origins lie in the printing industry. A cliché was a stereotype plate used for printing large runs of books or newspapers and acquired its current meaning around 1888.
I am a shameless user of clichés. I justify them on the basis that I am writing in close third POV and it is realistic for characters to speak and think in this way. I recently wrote ‘How long is a piece of string’, a phrase in common usage in the UK, but was surprised when readers from other English-speaking countries alternatively laughed or scratched their heads in puzzlement. Clichés, apparently, do not always transcend borders.
So should we use them in our writing? Never, I think, is a strong word, but sparingly, why not? In the right context they can help a writer connect with the reader because people find comfort in the familiar.
In the book It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés, lexicographer Orin Hargreaves’ says “A quality of clichés that is typically overlooked when people are disparaging them is that many of them are really very clever and original. Or rather, they were very clever and original the first time they appeared… Clichés are very often a victim of their own early success.”
On the other hand there is no substitute for originality. The French poet, Gerard de Naval was of the opinion that “The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”
One way to harness both the cleverness and familiarity of a cliché is to add a twist, even alter the meaning, like the film producers who came up with the James Bond title ‘Live and Let Die’ as opposed to ‘live and let live’. A more exacting challenge is to produce a new image altogether that expresses the same idea. As an alternative to ‘how long is a piece of string’, for example, I could have said, ‘how many decimal places in the mathematical constant Pi?’
Mmh. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Clearly I need more practice, but that is the beauty of writing. It is a process of evolution, a process of discovery for both the writer and reader. It is about variety, light and dark, shades of grey; fifty of them if you can manage it.
How long is a piece of string? Meaning: “Intrinsically a piece of string has length but that length is unknown hence the phrase means that the quantitative answer is not known and there is an implicate understanding that the answer will be difficult to find.” (Phrases.org)
Possibly a variant of: “How many calves’ tails behoveth to reach from the earth to the sky? – No more but one and it be long enough.” (Demaundes Joyous, early 16th century.)
Pi: The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. The ratio (3.141592+) has been calculated to 2.7 trillion decimal places.