Clichés are everywhere.
They are encoded into the way we think and express ourselves in such a pervasive way that we simply don’t notice they’re there. Yet there they are, when you’re feeling “under the weather,” or if someone “paints you a picture” of dinner last night; when you’re just “killing time,” or perhaps instead “time flies”…all cliches.
Cliches are useful. They come preloaded with meaning. The problem is that they are dull.
So how can we use clichés in a way that exploits their pre-loaded meaning, but rescues them from their mediocrity?
Strategy 1: Replacing
- Find a cliche with an image inside it, or a word that is easily replaced.
- Make sure that the rest of the sentence still sounds like the original cliche.
The aural fireworks happen because of the element of surprise—something familiar with something new inside of it.
For example: We fight like…rust and rain.
What else do we fight like (the key here is: anything unrelated to cats and dogs…)?
Maybe we fight like:
- tree roots and concrete
- secrets and loose lips
- a toupee and a sudden breeze
Any of these is not only more interesting, but the very fact of subverting the expected image shines an even brighter light on your alternative combination.
I wanna drive you…wild, wild, wild
From ‘Wild,’ by John Legend
Strategy 2: Extending
- Take the image that is being used in the cliché, keep the image, but elaborate on it using words and images that are related to that image.
For example: I was drowning as the conversation flowed
The cliché of “flowing conversation” is extended by adding in more water imagery, which is the base image that gave us the cliché in the first place.
Another example: Hungry enough to eat our words
You can see that by elaborating on the image contained within the cliché, the image itself comes back to life. We now re-see the image as it was originally intended.
Taylor Swift and Liz Rose did a beautiful job of this in Taylor’s song, “All Too Well”:
It was a masterpiece til you tore it all up
Strategy 3: Inverting
- Turn a negative into a positive; or
- State the opposite of the known cliche
For example: The grass is never greener
Time won’t fly
From ‘All Too Well,’ Taylor Swift and Liz Rose.
Strategy 4: Swapping
Strategy 4 relies on the cliché using two images, or using verbs that can also easily become nouns, and vice versa.
For example, let’s take: There’s no time like the present
And turn it into: There’s no present like time
You can see that this twist relies on the word “present” having two distinct meanings, which work in both contexts. The best way to find these is to brainstorm or research as many clichéd expressions as you can, and testing out whether an inversion will yield anything juicy like this.
One more. Let’s take: Storm in a teacup
And make it: A teacup in a storm
Even though the meanings of the specific images don’t change, the inversion creates a new image with a fresh connotation.
Strategy 5: Contrasting
- Add to the cliché by using a contrasting image (even by combining two clichés into a novel combination).
For example: I’ll make short work of being long gone
The key here is finding clichés that contain one main image, then using the opposite or contrasting image to recast the original. When we talk about opposites or contrasts, we can think about things like: future/past; day/night; fire/water; best/worst.
Songwriters in the past have used this technique to generate snappy titles:
“The Night We Called It a Day” (Thomas Adair and Matt Dennis)
“The Last Thing I Needed Was the First Thing This Morning” (Gary P. Nunn and Donna Farar, recorded by Willie Nelson)
“Full Moon and Empty Arms” (Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman, recorded by Frank Sinatra)
This strategy runs the risk of getting cheesy pretty quickly, so approaching it with sensitivity and nuance is required to prevent the cheese from overwhelming the platter.
Strategy 6: Verb object
- Change the object of the active verb
- This relies on clichés that have an important verb as part of their construction.
For example, we can take: Play the devil’s advocate
And make it: Play the piano like the devil’s advocate
Or: Break the ice
Becomes: Break him like ice
And Taylor on the subject:
Break me like a promise
From “All Too Well”.
You don’t need to avoid cliches.
They are too valuable, too pre-loaded with meaning to abandon altogether. Instead, we can take advantage of the meaning they carry with them by twisting them into new shapes and colors. In fact, by altering them ever so slightly, we not only end up bringing the dead back to life, but the element of surprise acts like a switch on the ears of your listeners.
The images you choose will be bathed in the special light of surprise.
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Photo credit: Instagram (Taylor Swift)