“Once in a blue moon.” “Love is blind.” “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Hundreds of idioms have popularized the English lexicon in communal convenience. They can work in conversation, in children’s stories, and high school English classes when you need to quickly identify a theme. But in intentional, mature writings, cliches kill authenticity faster than the reader can say “ho-hum.” Its shallow repetition removes all vulnerability for the writer to share his/her original voice.
Practically speaking, avoiding cliches includes eliminating any idioms the world is already familiar with. Let’s use this sentence as an example: “Once in a blue moon, Stacy would drive past her childhood apartment.” While we understand the writer’s meaning, the sentence, unfortunately, comes across a little shallow—something to be expected when a phrase is overused.
It would be better to replace the example with, “Every time she’d find herself missing her mother, Stacy would drive past her childhood apartment.” In just changing the idiom, we have a richer sentence. We have a richer storyline. And the same can be done with your writing. Rather than saying, “He could never get his act together,” tell your reader that he could never make it home in time for dinner. Your particulars trump generalities in almost every circumstance.
A teaching example can be found in the 2004 romantic comedy The Prince and Me. Paige, the film’s female protagonist, struggles to understand Shakespeare before enlisting the help of her classmate (and eventual love interest), Eddie.
“Why doesn’t [Shakespeare] just say that?” Paige complains in the middle of their tutoring lesson. “Why can’t people just say what they mean?”
Eddie looks at her and says, “Well, people rarely say what they mean.”
Isn’t it true? We rarely say what we mean, and cliche’s don’t necessarily help with that. Our humanity looks to writing to understand and be understood, and when things are glossed over, vulnerability is stifled. A blanket statement speaks for a collective, not for the individual.
Of course, don’t completely exile idioms all together. They can be helpful intros or closers. They can be interesting when creating a new teaching point. For example, if you used the expression “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” to analyze the conflict of nature versus nurture, you’re practicing creative ingenuity. Or manipulating idioms can be a clever way to play with generalities, like such: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree unless there’s wind to help it escape.”
Uniqueness, no matter how small, is your best weapon in combating monotony. Take the case of the romantic comedy. If you wanted to write a Romeo and Juliet piece, what aspect of the storyline’s predictability can you rearrange? What is essential to developing a star-crossed lovers narrative, and what can you reconstruct?
Don’t let this pressure you into needing to add something grandiose. You don’t need a big plot twist. You just need your individualism. God has fashioned all of us to be representatives of His eye, and if you let Him point out your particular angle, you’ll have enough originality to avoid the suffocating traps of a cliche.
Featured Image by Edgar Chaparro