So the Olympics is over with its tears and triumphs, heroism and heartaches, gold brought home against overwhelming odds and drug cheats literally stripped of their medals. We witnessed moments of sporting history: the sheer poetry of Bolt’s triple triumph, Golden Girl Jessica Ennis’s finest hour, Mo Farah giving 110% in the gruelling 10,000 metres, and Nicola “just an ordinary girl” Adams’s groundbreaking victory in the boxing ring. Yes, the Olympiad was a veritable field day for clichés; they were the stuff of legend; they were the throbbing lifeblood of our great nation; our esteemed prime minister probably wants to make competitive cliché-writing compulsory in every British school so that Team GB can proudly pen the purplest prose in Rio four years hence.
Of course, a cliché is just an idiomatic or literary phrase pumped up with nandrolone and tainted by over-use. The reason a cliché becomes a cliché is that when someone first coins it everyone else thinks it’s rather good and repeats it until the inspired phrase became shop-soiled and hackneyed. For writers, the danger is that we fall back on clichés without even being aware of it and stop striving for original, possibly more apposite, phrases. How many writers have used ‘cornflower blue’ without being able to spot one in the herbaceous border? Have you stopped to think whether your feet are really like lead or your heart is really in your mouth? Maybe ‘butterflies in the stomach’, those little beating wings in the digestive tract, is the best way to describe that fluttering, nervous sensation but think about it.
We need to keep a cliché-watch; only last week in our Novelists’ Survival Group we rooted out ‘a cold, lifeless hand’, ‘a wan smile’ and ‘a tinkling laugh’. Be vigilant and if it sounds second-hand re-write it. Clichés are what Frank Kermode called ‘used thinking’ and they have no place in good writing.
Remember that stereotypical characters and clichéd scenarios should also be targeted: if your police-procedural has a hard-bitten chief with marital problems who’s a bugger for the bottle eighty-six him (he’s the equivalent of a Belarusian female shot-putter who looks like an ugly man and tests positive for performance-enhancing substances), if his high-flying, over-compensating, female superintendent, with the inability to form committed relationships, says to a subordinate, “You! In my office. Now!” lock yourself in a windowless room and don’t come out until you have read the entire works of Elmore Leonard.
Still predictable scenarios can be given fresh twists: the police chief may write jokes in Latin and cross-dress and the shot-putter may design floral handbags and have eaten a steroid brownie accidently. New circumstances can breathe new life into tired, old phrases so feel free to make a Bolt for it but do consider the innovative possibilities of doing a Blake or going for aMo.