Monday, May 7, 2012

When Good Cliches Go Bad


“You, sir, are a masher and a cad!”
“Who shall hold me responsible for being beguiled by such a nymph?”
“Yeah, well, your approach really threw me for a loop.”
“You’re in the major leagues now, fair maiden.”
Er, what?
Imagine you’re reading a romance novel set in a place and time that requires a specific parlance: Regency English, for example, or early-20th-century American English, or even that funky-formal-high-fantasy speak. Now imagine falling into the unfamiliar but intriguing rhythms of the language, feeling it lull you into a cozy state of sleepy receptivity. And then, out of nowhere, BAM!, an idiom squeaks its way into the symphony, jarring you back into the real world.
Alas, the dreaded novelist trap has been sprung: you as a reader have become aware of the mechanics of the story.
As authors, we should of course be wary of slipping into the verbal shortcuts of clichés, colloquialisms, idioms, and slang. It’s an English 101 lesson, sure, but clichés diminish the impact of our writing by doing the thinking for our readers. A reader presented with a colloquialism fails to use her imagination, meaning she becomes less emotionally and mentally involved with our carefully-crafted story.
Okay, that said, I have to admit I’m not opposed to characters employing the occasional slang; heck, using clichés or platitudes may become an endearing or annoying trait of a particular character. Nothing wrong with that, right? The keys are authorial awareness and intentionality.
So, unless used with intention, I suggest we remain vigilant against those insidious idioms, clichés, and slang terms. And, it must be said, this is especially important for those of us who write stories set in different places and times. In historical and fantasy realms, there’s just something especially eye-twitch-worthy about encountering modern, regionally-specific concepts and phrases. I mean, let’s get real: Nothing says amateurish like a Victorian heroine discussing her “excess baggage,” amiright?
Cliches and idioms can be powerful instruments in our authorial symphony, but we need to make sure and wield them wisely and well.