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Busted! Mark L. Danielewski Caught Building on Cliché

This post originally ran on September 3, 2010. If we run it again, will it become cliché?

Stop in the name of love.

You can’t hurry love, no you’ll just have to wait.

Whenever you’re near I hear a symphony.

If the Supremes sang it in the sixties, chances are it’s a cliché today. And what are we writers told? Don’t use clichés. This makes sense from a business perspective. Why should a publisher pay a wordsmith to regurgitate combinations so recognizable that readers are numb to them? We need to do the work of writers and come up with new word combinations that will snag the reader’s interest and inspire new thought.

But don't throw the love child out with the bath water just yet. A known cliché could lay the groundwork upon which you could create a meaningful—even a Supreme—twist.

In House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski did just that in the following exchange between the narrator and a woman he just met. Even out of context it is easy to see how he uses a lyric from the sixties to evoke character and voice.
“Thank you,” I said, thinking I should kneel.
“Thank you,” she insisted.
Those were the next two words she ever said to me, and wow, I don’t know why but her voice went off in my head like a symphony. A great symphony. A sweet symphony. A great-f***ing-sweet symphony. I don’t know what I’m saying. I know absolutely sh*t about symphonies.
Those of you wanting to fuel your inner flame may want to check out the images and techniques Danielewski offers up in his creatively dense experimental fiction. He continues this passage by elaborating on another cliché—about how this woman has left him "reeling."
And hard as this may be for you to believe, I really was reeling. Even after she left the Shop an hour or so later, I was still giving serious thought to petitioning all major religions in order to have her deified.
In fact I was so caught up in the thought of her, there was even a moment where I failed to recognize my boss. I had absolutely no clue who he was. I just stared at him thinking to myself, "Who's this dumb mutant and how the hell did he get up here?" which it turns out I didn't think at all but accidentally said out loud, causing all sorts of mayhem to ensue, not worth delving into now.

Don’t berate yourself if your first draft lacks sparkle due to an overuse of clichés. This simply proves their ubiquity: finding clichés conveniently lined up at the front of the shelf marked IMAGERY, your mind used them as shorthand for laying down your story.

Sensitize yourself to look for worn out phrases in subsequent drafts. Replace most of them with more evocative language. If you identify a cliché that works well for you, try refreshing it with a twist. Like any edited prose you will want your twisted cliché to create voice, deepen characterization, and further plot.

Here are a few examples where I turned first draft shorthand into second draft imagery.

They got along like cat and mouse:
The roles they slipped into were threadbare costumes: she the cat, bored and de-clawed; he a near-dead mouse.

He stuck his foot in his mouth:
He sat there with a size 12 Chuck Taylor hanging from his lips, the rubber sour against his tongue.

Anyone want to join in the fun? Twist one of these or sub in one of your own.

Between you and me and the bedpost
Been there, done that
From head to toe
Bring home the bacon

I know you'll come up with something admirable. After all, what is a river deep, or even a mountain high, between a writer and a word challenge?

Kathryn Craft specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush! I said that at work yesterday for chuckles.

    Breakfast Every Hour

  2. Alex: That's actually a fun cliche because I always have to stop a sec to figure out what it means. How could you twist it to help evoke character in a fresh way?

  3. I totally wish I knew what it meant myself. The fact that Geico is using it in one of their new ads, adds to the humor.


    She had it, in her palm, that pirate booty, that charm, that golden bird, that seed of an idea to all she wanted in her life. Would she plant it? Would it grow like brambles, or the unattended bushes around her home? She could only wonder.

    Breakfast Every Hour

  4. Alex, I love it! I believe you were channeling Danielewski!

  5. Well his sister is the singer Poe, and I love her music, so there was a connection!

    Breakfast Every Hour

  6. Been there, done that:

    Sorry. I ate at Piggy's Restaurant just last week, spent a fortune, did not enjoy the food, and have no intention of ever going back. Thanks anyway.


  7. bringing home the bacon

    I tried and tried to tell her that there is a big difference between the crispy strips of pork we'd eat for breakfast and a full set of Louis Vuitton matching luggage made out of Elmer Fudd's hide - feeding her the basics was making me a pauper.
    Jan Morrison

  8. "Why should a publisher pay a wordsmith to regurgitate combinations so recognizable that readers are numb to them?"

    That is very well put and worth remembering.

    Here's my attempt at "bringing home the bacon":

    He could feel the squeals and squeaks of his freshly earned paycheque as it struggled in his wallet, begging to be unleashed in the shopping mall and not sacrificed on the altar of his mortgage.

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  9. Pat: I like yours, too. It's amazing how many layers of cliché we can uncover, though--I'd hit that one again for "spent a fortune."

    Jan and Elle: I love how the same cliché led to such interesting, evocative excerpts! Elle: the first time I skimmed yours I read "the altar of his marriage" --sometimes our eyes, as readers, fill in the cliché blank just as Word uses autofill. Which made it even more fun when I realized you had written "mortgage."

  10. Great Elle! What an incredible word picture!

  11. Just remember, if you're writing historical fiction, get the right cliches into the proper centuries!

  12. Awesome blog. I enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me.

  13. Glad to see this one posted again. I have always believed we write the ordinary to get the story on paper and the extraordinary comes in the rewrite when we turn those common phrases and cliches into something magical. Thanks for the reminder, Kathryn.

  14. I think it's fun to consciously throw in a cliche at times, but not if an entire book is riddled with them.

    Morgan Mandel

  15. Between you me and the bedpost? Where have you been hanging out, Kathryn ... I thought it was the fencepost!

  16. Cliches can be great place savers. I usually edit them out with something more original, usually from my characters pov. Sometimes though, since I write sci-fi with lots of strange things, a character speaking a time worn cliche can help ground things.

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