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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Cliches and Idiomatic expressions

   
Author Topic: Cliches and Idiomatic expressions
Tank1982
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Cliches have a knack for finding their way into our stories. But are they all necessarily bad? Is a cliche-free story a better story? And where do you draw the line with idiomatic expressions?

So, if someone was "running for his life" should I invest time into trying to "reinvent the wheel" and maybe say "He was running from fear of his death"? or "He was running because he didn't want to die"?

When it comes to idiomatic expressions, there are certain ways we say certain things. Yes it's overused, but does that make it wrong? If so and so had to "narrow down his options" would I be wrong for expressing that idea that way, even though it's the easiest and clearest way to express that idea?

Sometimes I feel like everything I'm writing is a cliche, and at those times I just stop. I guess what I'm getting at is: Is my goal solely to use innovative expression to tell my story?

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Crystal Stevens
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The cliche "Running for his life." is an excellent example of "telling" instead of "showing". Most writers wouldn't use terms like that but would bring it out in the character's actions and emotional responses to what's happening to him. Telling your readers that the man is "running for his life" would then be self evident and unnessary to voice by saying so literally word-for-word.

This is a problem that some writers have; they will show what is happening in the story and then sum the whole thing up in a single sentence, sometimes a cliche. It's much like watching a play. The actors act out the scene. The audience is totally enjoying the show when this guy leaps out on stage to point out what's going on in one brief sentence to the audience. Like the audience can't figure it out for themselves.

I also think that's the problem with most cliches in writing. They can be shortcuts to avoid good writing. But using them in dialog, I feel, would be more acceptable because that's the way most people talk. Cliches are very much a part of society and quite common in everyday speech.

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EVOC
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I find the trick to writing is knowing when it is okay to break the "rules".

Such as knowing when to show and when to tell. That can be hard. We have it beat into our heads not to tell. But there is a time when it is okay.

The same applies for cliches and idiomatic expressions. You have to know when to use them and when not to.

This learning will come from your beta readers. They should let you know if a cliche stands out to them. I've even learned of some cliches and expressions this way.

I would not say a cliche-free story is better.

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MattLeo
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Cliches arise in writing like "stub" articles in the Wikipedia. There may need to be an article on Norway's Veteran's Day holiday, but nobody has gotten around to writing one yet. You may need to provide a bit more detail about how your character "runs for his life", but right now you're roughing out this chapter.

Catching a writer in a cliche is a bit like catching a teenager with his elbows on the table. According to etiquette experts there isn't anything wrong with putting your elbow on the table, but the "rule" persists in popular folklore because it's such an easy and satisfying "gotcha".

There's no question that cliches are often the hallmark of bad writing. But I don't think you can just point to an instance of a cliche in a passage and instantly conclude the passage is sloppily written. You have to look at context. One thing to consider is the style of narration. "Run for his life" sounds lazy when offered by an omniscient narrator, but idiomatic when spoken by a first person narrator.

Things can be trickier in third person limited when you're narrating close to the POV character's voice. Third person limited narration can take on aspects of the POV character's speech; it may sound idiomatic, or it may well sound out of place.

If a passage at a whole is tedious, lifeless, and stale, you can point to any cliches in the sentence as part of that problem. If a passage is vivid and engaging, you can't "fail" it because it happens to contain a cliche, you can't even conclude with certainty that the cliche is a fault until you've really put some thought into it.

As for your own writing, the test should be, "is this what I really want to say (why?), or is it just want came out when I sat down to write?"

I'm more concerned with cliched situations and stock characters (A-rab terrorists who speak dog-of-an-infidel English is one of my pet peeves) than I am with old saw sayings. But even stock characters can be used originally, for example in satire.

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extrinsic
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The examples you give: "running for his life," "He was running from fear of his death," "He was running because he didn't want to die," and "narrow down his options" might be labeled cliché, but I don't see them that way. They summarize actions, emotions, introspections (thoughts), sensations, and emotions and perhaps conversations {speech or dialogue).

I see the examples as static voice that summarizes, perhaps, a dramatic context, not passive voice, not active voice. Static in action and static in the sense of white noise: generic, vague, and meaningless. if the examples are not as fully developed as their dramatic circumstances indicate, they lack context and texture.

Context in essence is a cultural milieu's time, place, and situation, especially a cultural situation. Like a man running from a bunny implies the bunny is not as readers will normally expect. Similarly, a man running from a schmeep implies the schmeep is texturally dangerous in the milieu's cultural context; that is, the milieu's texture. Texture is the emotional attitude toward a topic or subject or context that clarifies the meaning of a circumstance to a dramatis personae for readers, be that persona a narrator or a perspective character.

A narrator might express an attitude, like with James ran for his life, recast to eliminate the static gerund verb predicate "was running." James flew headlong past the old oak stump, awkwardly leapt over the fallen fence railing, and dove into the fetid ditch water. He buried his head in the cracked culvert pipe, his bare butt a slimy turtle back stuck into the air.

A writing exercise I strongly recommend: incorporate action, sensation, introspection, emotion, and conversation descriptions into any scene's causal stimuli. For example, running is not, per se, causal. It's reactive; it's an effect of a causal stimuli. First causes come first, beforehand. Whoever is running is running from something, probably a highly unsettling interruption of a routine or Bear at the Door, if "running for his life."

Such a summarized line, though, may serve as a transition bridge jumping from a scene closing to a scene opening. Show the cause of running in a scene, step transition to the runner, before fleeing, reacting emotionally to the causal stimuli. Then summarize the runner running away. Then open the next scene with a detailed description of the effect and destination of the run, for example. Include sensation, action, introspection, conversation, and emotion descriptions as indicated wherever reasonable.

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Crystal Stevens
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So are you folks saying my advice is wrong, or that I just didn't go far enough in explaining cliches? Don't get me wrong. I agree with what everyone else has said. I just want to know if my advice was sound. If not, I'll refrain from being the first one to answer a post of this kind in the future. No hard feelings intended [Smile] .
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Robert Nowall
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I'm thinking that, when I write about the future (near or far), the cliches that people of the future use wouldn't be what we currently use, the cliches would be out of circulation and archaic, and new cliches would have arisen to replace them. (Not to forget intelligent aliens, who wouldn't be using human cliches.)

But I'm no prognosticator to know what'll come, and whatever I write has got to be clear to the reader of here-and-now...so, whenever I'm aware of using something, I try to stamp down on it and revise it out.

(Or that's the theory, anyway.)

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GhostWriter
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Generally when I start writing a cliche, I realize that I am telling the reader what is happening rather than showing the reader what is happening. I avoid cliches because it tends to lead to babying the reader and dumbing down my writing. If what I describe is not showing that my character is running for his life, I should rewrite, not explane.

As always, there are exceptions to this, but I better have a REALLY good reason for using it. So no, Crystal, I agree with you whole heartedly. Besides, we post up here to say our opinions =). Writing has a surprising amount of ambiguity and style that rules cannot sum up, so most of what we say is advice and feelings. (notice I did say MOST. There ARE rules that we do follow, but that is a different subject.) so don't shy away from telling what you think. Thanks for the first post by the way.

So the moral of this essay I am writing is "No, cliches aren't bad, but telling the reader instead of showing the reader is." I hope that helps.

Well I have to run for my life now, tell my family I love them! [Wink] Thanks so much for the food for thought, and may your pages be ever full.

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EVOC
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quote:
Originally posted by Crystal Stevens:
So are you folks saying my advice is wrong, or that I just didn't go far enough in explaining cliches? Don't get me wrong. I agree with what everyone else has said. I just want to know if my advice was sound. If not, I'll refrain from being the first one to answer a post of this kind in the future. No hard feelings intended [Smile] .

That is not what I was saying. I only chose to expand on your advice. My point was there are no hard and fast rules in cliches or "show not tell".

Personally I think Tank's questions are really going to get answers that are a matter of opinion. And I can't view one person's opinion as wrong, even if it differs from mine.

I simply believe that Cliches and "Show don't tell" fall under the category of rules that can be broken when appropriate. The difficult part is finding out when.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Crystal Stevens:
So are you folks saying my advice is wrong, or that I just didn't go far enough in explaining cliches?

I'd say your advice was sound and as right as any such advice could be. I think it's important to caveat advice so that people don't try to boil down good writing to a set of overly simplistic rules. You yourself pointed out one exception to the "avoid cliche" rule -- the use of cliche in dialog. That of course isn't the only exception, and I brought up the case of narration that has a dialog feel to it (first person in particular) as another sometimes exception.

I think of rules like "avoid cliches" as more like guidelines. Where and how you choose to break or bend such a rule is part of your unique sound as a writer. "Choose" is an important word here. It's one thing to break a rule because you aren't aware of what you're doing, it's another thing to break or bend a rule if you think it might be a good idea. Give it a try, and run it by some trustworthy readers to see if it works the way you think it does.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Crystal Stevens:
So are you folks saying my advice is wrong, or that I just didn't go far enough in explaining cliches? Don't get me wrong. I agree with what everyone else has said. I just want to know if my advice was sound. If not, I'll refrain from being the first one to answer a post of this kind in the future. No hard feelings intended [Smile] .

I'm not saying either that you're advice is wrong nor that you didn't go far enough explaining clichés. Your advice is sound, on point, and focused on the point. And, please, don't be reluctant to weigh in. Your opinion is as valid as anyone's. You're as equally entitled to be a first responder. For at least the reason that expressing your opinion helps you to enhance your understanding of what you're commenting on, speak up.

The writing craft trust that the rack which holds hats beside the river is is a mighty engine. The engine will misfire and falter if there's not fresh input from emerging writing artisans to pick up where others leave off.

I and others have presented our own positions and added our own takes on principles thereof, some expanding upon your foundations. Excess, untimely, or irrelevant summarization, for example, is considered cliché by a variety of writing consensuses. Same with explanation. Same with passive voice, which at least one of my preceding sentences is. In active though hedging voice: A variety of writing consensuses consider excess, untimely, and irrelevant summarization cliché, for example. Same with hedging voice. Reader consensuses may feel likewise.

[ November 15, 2012, 06:02 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Crystal Stevens
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Thanks for the replies everyone. I feel better now. My confusion was probably due to fatigue from 30 hours of overtime in a two week span that included three Saturdays in a row. Tomorrow and Sunday will be the first full weekend I'll have off in four weeks, and I'm definitely looking forward to it.

I'm taking a deep breath and preparing to dive into the next thread that maybe I can help with.
Thanks again [Smile] .

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