Cliche: Plagiarism out on Parole?

Writers create. We struggle to dream what hasn’t yet been dreamed; to fashion something with our brains that is strange and wonderful and utterly fantastic to the senses. It must have never before existed until it was conceived of our minds; birthed by our hands.

All that sounds terribly romantic. But occasionally, even the best writer can be tempted to adopt words that aren’t his or her own. I’m not talking about plagiarism. This is a little more legal. It’s the darned cliché. It’s the behind the eight balls, the raining cats and dogs, the busy as a bees, and the hit it out of the parks that really get under editors’ and readers’ fingernails. Why? Not only are people weary of the same old same old (see?), they find themselves reluctant to invest time or money in a writer (who should be by default, creative) who steals words from dead guys because it’s still legal.

You might wonder, what’s the big deal? So I’m writing a story and I choose to make my character run like the wind. Won’t that help to further the scene by allowing the reader’s mind to fill in blanks? I say, “Sure, if you want your reader to fill in your blanks with their baggage.” If you’ve got a gangsta’ sprinting over a crooked pavement wearing brand new, lifted kicks and a red bandana tourniquet keeping a blistered bullet in place, and suddenly your reader is transported to a place where a hot blonde in a gingham dress is riding a thoroughbred through a meadow of daisies, the effectiveness of your scene is busted. And it’s going to be different for every reader. By raising your pen and declaring surrender to the cliché, you give up continuity of scene (and maybe even your story).

The more I think about it (there I go again), the more I wonder: why aren’t clichés considered plagiarism? Is it because the original writer should be flattered? Should I shake my mugger’s hand and compliment his taste in pleather purses? Should I commend my burglar on his lock-picking and offer him a bologna sandwich and milk? Why are some phrases bound to be shackled in quotation marks for eternity, while others are left out on cliché parole?

I’m absolutely guilty of using the cliché in my own writing. But it looks like I’m bound to becoming aware of my own abuses the good old-fashioned way (geesh!).  Just now, I copied this blog into one of those cliché finder tools on the web. Guess what? It didn’t find a single cliché. So editors, keep your cliché eyes calibrated. It doesn’t look like you’ve got any stiff competition (damn it!) in that department (I give up).


10 responses to “Cliche: Plagiarism out on Parole?

  1. Cliche’s one nuisance we’re all guilty of somewhere in our writing past…but you’re certainly right, they almost surely are best avoided if at all possible…

  2. My dear Ms. Little, you’ve really opened up a can of worms here.

    Believe it or not — and at the risk of boring people to tears — I do think there’s a legitimate place for cliches in literature, and for better or worse I myself enjoy using them, as anyone familiar with my work (such as it is) will tell you.

    As a matter of fact, I don’t really think it’s possible — or not, at any rate, in the foreseeable future — to rid the language of cliches. (The reason for this is another kettle of fish.) But I also believe there should be some kind of acid test: namely, one must be selective in one’s use of cliches.

    For instance:

    A spring storm warning predicting golf-ball-sized hail.


    Her tale was a richly woven tapestry blending excitement and nostalgia.

    Not okay.

    As for plagiarism — well, that’s a horse of an entirely different color.

    • Boring? Never. Continue.

      The worms, tears, better, worse, future, fish, acid, and balls are okay; the tapestry isn’t. Please explain. I have great respect for your writing and would love to learn why.

      • Oh, I like that: keeping me honest.

        Well, I was being a little tongue-in-cheek, of course, for effect, and not all those cliches are cliches I’d actually use — though let it be emphatically noted that I do agree with your statement: balls are okay.

        My basic criteria is this: how felicitous is the phrase, how evocative, and, conversely, how contrived? How stale?

        Obviously the issue isn’t cut-and-dry, and one person’s pet is another’s monster.

        “A horse of a different color” is, for example, not one I often see trotted out. So that when I do see it trotted out, as I did recently, from a customer at the bar where I bartend, it makes me smile, like a mule eating barbed wire. Also, it tells me something significant about that person, something good. It tells me that I have a kindred spirit.

        “A different kettle of fish” is also rare and, I think, evocative. “Golf-ball-sized hail” aussie. I probably hear that one a thousand times each spring, and yet it never gets old, and it never fails to put the image in my head.

        “A richly woven tapestry,” on the other hand, strikes me as over-written and false. A little too purple, I suppose, for my taste.

        Vivid language is reused precisely because it’s vivid, and I think that even if one were to invent a whole new book of excellent and never-before-used expressions, those expression, too, would quickly become cliches — for precisely that reason: they are good and they are vivid.

  3. Pingback: Writing Clichés: How to Keep them from Killing your Voice « GREAT MENTOR

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