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Don’t Judge a Cliché by Its Cover

ARON BRADLEY-CLARKE grabs the bull by the horns and, in a nutshell, advises us to not always think outside the cliché box

Not to sound cliché but telling someone not to sound cliché is one of the most cliché things to say.

There is an obsession within academia over strict rules which in my opinion have no place within creative writing. Written in bold, it’s always AVOID CLICHÉ, but often cliché is the only way we can communicate to a wide audience with universal symbols everyone understands.

What if I told you moonlight is cliché? As advised by a tutor. Yes, there are the typical connotations of the romantic, but we can’t play God and start removing literal things that exist in the world to avoid repetition. If the world isn’t original enough, take it up with the creator himself. Avoiding cliché in certain instances is important too.

What becomes of the broken-hearted?

According to, [t]he word heartbroken has been used since the late 1500s, and it comes from heartbreak, which is rooted in the Old English heorte, ‘heart’ and also ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’”. Like a blade, it might have been sharp and effective but has been dulled in its use over time. What if the image of the broken heart was used differently? For the poetry part of my course, I took inspiration from my love of hip hop to express sadness at the state of it: “My heart breaks, now it beats at 90 bpm”. The wordplay here is that 90 beats per minute is the standard hip hop tempo, and a break beat is the name for the drum sample used. The phrase is defibrillated by the context.

Rise and shine

On my course, I also studied ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ (1819) by Percy Bysshe-Shelley, written as a protest poem and for extracts to be chanted by large crowds. Originally a response to the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ where “an estimated 18 people were killed and more than 650 injured” (Ballads and Songs of Peterloo, 2018, p. 2) - it echoes the cries of many activists protesting injustice to this day. The most quoted is the refrain, naturally repeated in the poem in a chant rhythm to embed itself in the brain. It goes like this:

“Rise like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number,

Shake your chains to Earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you –

Ye are many; they are few.”

Brave as an ocelot?

In so many words, the central idea is easy enough to grasp. The lion is the notorious “king of the jungle” and is therefore commonly used as the symbol of might. That same might is then inspired in the people invoking the animal’s spirit. “Shake your chains” literally means break free from something holding you back. “Sleep had fallen on you;” calling out those who chose blissful ignorance over awakening to the truth. You’ve heard these same ideas, expressing these same sentiments over a hundred times, but it’s the way that they’re put together which is new. Try and convey the same message using different ideas, and it just wouldn’t be as hard-hitting. Let’s be totally “original.” Let’s say I’m a zoologist. I might want to reference a more obscure animal like the ocelot; top of the food chain in its native region, so another dominant predator. “Rise like ocelots” for a wider audience who aren’t informed by the same personal experience, wouldn’t be able to take away anywhere near as much as I can! They aren’t as well known, and what they represent just isn’t as embedded in collective consciousness. Without cliché, every piece of writing would be equivalent to an abstract painting. A masterpiece to some, but random splattering to others, and when writing for an audience this just won’t do.

A perfect storm in a teacup

This is where we get into the subjective versus the objective. Despite the popular phrase (or cliché) art is not entirely subjective. The line of a writer is a line that connects two ideas. For the pieces to fit, they must share a common shape. A writer doesn’t cut these shapes, but simply fits them together: that point of connection is pre-established.

Take another example studied on my course: prolific author Ursula K Le Guin. In A Wizard Earthsea (2012 - originally 1968), a brewing storm foreshadows the final confrontation: “then, far off in the rain over the water, he saw the shadow coming” (p. 107). Again, how often have you seen this so-called ‘pathetic fallacy’ used like this to convey tumultuous events. Is this a case of K Le Guin being cliché? Well, what would make this cliché? For one thing, time and time again it’s proved incredibly effective. The shared qualities of a storm and times of turmoil are the build-up of tension, instability, contending with forces beyond your control. The two are practically identical in effect, which is why there is no better image to convey this. Beyond that, ‘foreshadow’ contains the word ‘shadow’ because the shadow gives only the sense of something and not the thing itself. She uses a shadow to foreshadow because it’s such an accurate metaphor - the word is right there in the etymology.

People in glass houses...

As mentioned, I’m a big hip hop fan. It contains many ways in which cliché can be used originally and effectively. One of my favourite songs is ‘Poison Penmanship’ by Possessed of Rhyme Asylum which contains endless examples of this. The most stand-out is the line “I got master’s degree burns after a heat stroke of genius” (2008). This is an example of interconnecting phrases, as “master's degree” and “degree of burns” are fused with “heat stroke” and “stroke of genius”. Four different phrases which all bring together ideas of heat and intelligence. Another example is flipping figures of speech to be literal, such as “I live in a glass house throwing meteorites.” Playing on the cliché “don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house,” this takes away all figurative meaning and instead depicts a supreme being residing in the upper atmosphere bringing natural disasters at will.

All’s well that ends well

So, you see, cliché is so common because they can be the most effective. Language can be as scientific as engineering and mathematics - sometimes the moving parts form a useful contraption, but sometimes it just results in a heap of scrap metal. It’s not about whether you use clichés but more about how you use them. And you should use them if you want a bigger audience to know what you’re on about!

Written by Aron Bradley-Clarke


‘Heartbroken - Definition, Meaning & Synonyms’. [n.d.].,spirit"%20or%20"soul ."

Morgan, Alison. 2018. Ballads and songs of Peterloo. 1st ed: Manchester University Press.

Wu, D., & Wiley, J. (2012). Romanticism: an anthology. 3rd ed. Wiley-Blackwell

Guin, Ursula K. Le. 2012. A Wizard of Earthsea. 5th ed. Perfection Learning

‘Rhyme Asylum – Poison Penmanship’. 2008. Genius.

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