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Caught Red-handed: Managing Cliche

This post is inspired by a great seminar I attended for Lit-Cleveland given by Laura Grace Weldon –– poet, short story writer, and thinker.

Visit her website:

So, to get into it. Laura went into how, when we read a good story, we feel "physically there": we feel what the characters feel; we even feel what they are doing.

There is a scientific basis for this. Areas of the brain responsible for sensation and physical movement actually light up when you read: Polly protagonist brushes up against a cattail, and you feel the sensation of its fur along your own arm; she runs to chase a bus, and you feel a muscular tension in your body as if you were running along with her. It's subtle but there. It's what draws us in.

Cliches are processed at a much shallower level: They're processed as information, not sensation.

"Caught red-handed" –– which in fourteenth-century Scotland, where the phrase originates, meant you'd just killed one of the Lord's rabbits and have its blood on your hands –– once was a terrifying thing: It meant mutilation and/or execution by the Lord.

But today, all it says to us is, "oh, he's guilty." No visceral reaction. That's cliche.

That's why it's death to a story: To be successful, to be "relatable," a story has to leap from the page and grab you; it does that through visceral reaction. To use cliche is to wrap a story in gauze and blunt the point.

Not to mention, cliche is lazy writing.

There are times, though, that you can't avoid it; after wracking your brain, it just may not be possible to come up with the perfect cogent phrase that conveys the same idea as the cliche and still works. In that case, bend the cliche and make it your own. One example –– given in the seminar –– was the following.

"Grab the bull by the horns" is a total cliche. But "Grab the bull by the balls" is not. By changing just one word, you've turned a throwaway line into something memorable. You're not in real life going to grab a bull ANYWHERE without a suicide note, but whereas, in writing, grabbing the bull by the horns simply means "hard-driving," grabbing the bull by the balls... well, that conveys a special kind of crazy.

Which brings me to the next point: Using cliche in this way instantly brings a new dimensionality and color to the character. And you get a different dimension depending on which body part you use: "Grabbing the bull by the balls" might imply a dangerous, devil-may-care attitude, but "grabbing the bull by the tail" might imply a thirst for chaos. "Grabbing the bull by the hoof" might imply a stubborn doggedness. And so on.

What power to be able to say so much about your character with just one word! That's clever writing.

Cliches aren't just phrases: There are cliched characters and situations, as well. For example, the rugged and capable frontiersman: feared by men and aloof to women. Just rent any spaghetti western to find this guy. But give him an injured kitten that he tenderly nurses back to health, you have in relatively few phrases created a character who beneath the layers of testosterone-hardened grit is human after all.

In short: Stories gain their power from being memorable and relatable, and a crucial way that is achieved is through developing a sense connection between the words on the page and the reader's body. The story is robbed of that when you use cliche, because cliche is processed by the brain as mere information and not sensation. Steer clear of those pitfalls by avoiding cliche or by using it in memorable ways; and the ways in which you make your characters and stories memorable is what establishes your unique voice as a writer.

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