Kill the Cliché

Several years ago, I used to teach creative writing to 10-12 year-old students during the summers to make ends meet (and, I should add, because I really enjoyed doing it). One of my favorite exercises went something like this:

  • First, I gave the students three minutes of free-writing time: they had to keep their pens or pencils moving, without fail, for the entire time. I asked all the boys in the room to write about love, and I asked all the girls in the room to write about death.
  • When the timer went off, my students read their work aloud, and as they read, I copied the clichés they’d used onto the blackboard. Once the last student was done… I had a very full blackboard. (Incidentally, my choice of subject matter — arrived at after years of experimentation — was geared toward generating the largest number of clichés.)
  • I then asked my students if they knew what the phrases I’d written had in common. The most common response: they’re all things you’ve heard before, which pretty much hits the nail on the head (to use, of course, a cliche). And thus a great discussion began.

The trouble was this: my students assumed that because clichés are common, they must therefore be “right.” If everyone’s using them, after all, how could they be wrong? I spent the rest of the lesson disabusing them of this notion and the rest of the three-week class circling the clichés in their writing and asking them to find more original language to replace them with. It was… difficult.

But it was also unforgettable, both for me and for my students. I’ve heard from several of them over the intervening decades, and they’ve told me how critical the lesson was: how, more than anything else I shared with them, the call for more inventive language seemed to stick. It was a challenging ideal to live up to, one particular student told me, but one that made her writing much better… even if all she really wrote were work emails, Facebook status updates, and the occasional letter to a friend.

I happen to have a slightly more nuanced view of clichés, lo these many years later. I’m less diligent about excising them from my non-fiction prose, and I don’t wince as strongly if I hear them on television or while watching a movie, and I even (now and then) let my characters speak them. But I still consider them, generally, moments of weakness. I can’t help it.

Why am I mentioning this now? Because not long ago, I read the script for a relatively recent Pulitzer prize-winning musical* that was composed — I am not exaggerating — almost entirely out of clichés. I did a rough calculation on a random three-page section of the script; if I’d circled the clichés, like I used to do for my students, no more than 4% of the text would have gone un-circled.

I found it astonishing, page after cliché-ridden page. I simply didn’t understand how the musical even got produced, let alone won a major writing award. I tried to imagine that the music, which of course I couldn’t hear, utterly transformed the lyrics… but I just couldn’t see how. I started to wonder whether I was experiencing some new genre — the Cliché Play — but I simply couldn’t bear the idea that such a thing could exist. I even tried to imagine that it was an intentional gesture, that it was an essential part of the story being told… and that almost worked, but ultimately couldn’t sustain itself.

Why does work like this get made? When did we stop caring about language? Or have we? Am I being too much of a curmudgeon? Do I overreact to the presence of a stock phrase? Or do you share my disdain?

I await your thoughts.

*When I tweeted about this a while ago, several people asked me to name the play; I refused, and for the sake of decorum and playwright solidarity I will decline to do so again here. If you’ve read or seen it, you may know what I’m referring to. If not… just imagine what I’m describing, and I expect that will suffice.

7 thoughts on “Kill the Cliché”

  1. If you happen to have a guess about the name of the musical in question, please do not share it here. I don’t want to be a censor, but I left the name out of my post intentionally. I didn’t want to focus on the one play in question, which is a red herring. I wanted to talk about our relationship to the cliché, and that’s all.

    Thank you — and thank you, as always, for your comments!

  2. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, but I was very curious about the line “I even (now and then) let my characters speak them. But I still consider them, generally, moments of weakness. I can’t help it.”

    It would seem to me that characters who speak in cliches is something you’d want in your playwright’s toolkit in order to inform the audience’s understanding of certain characters.  I guess (as part of an overall appreciation of a work), I am open to giving writers the benefit of the doubt that sometimes it’s deliberate rather than lazy, that it better reflects reality.

    1. I suppose my tongue was half in my cheek when I wrote that bit, but… I really *don’t* “let” my characters speak in cliches very often.

      Yes, a character who speaks that way should be part of my toolkit, but I always feel as if I’d be wasting an audience’s time. You can hear people speaking that way everywhere. Why pay money to come to the theater and hear the same thing? Theater should be… I don’t know… more special than that.

      Clearly I have more thinking to do.

      1. You’re not wrong in wanting it to be that way, and I’m not sure an absence of cliches makes a work unrealistic.  But sometimes well-deployed, thoughtful cliches, can serve an inarticulate character.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top