July 16, 2002
7:58 AM   Subscribe

To write...means campaigning against cliche: "Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart."
posted by ColdChef (47 comments total)
Sorry about the lack of accents on the "cliches." The computer made them look like "clich�©s"
posted by ColdChef at 7:59 AM on July 16, 2002

Martin Amis uses cliche three times in that sentence. Cliche is a cliche itself. I prefer the cliches "hackneyed phrase" and "old chestnut", myself. Good article, though.

Even if real writers will always use cliches when the alternatives are too recherche. One writes to be understood and speed the reader along, not try to dazzle him/her with how clever and cliche-free your prose is. Most cliches are actually unobtrusive and they're cliches for a good reason: they do their job.

[please add acute accents to the the last "e"s in cliche and recherche].
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:06 AM on July 16, 2002

posted by delmoi at 8:11 AM on July 16, 2002

One of the clichés Fulford mentions is "window of opportunity." Heh.

On a road trip several years ago, we seemed to hit everything at the wrong time. One attraction was closed at the time of day we were there. Another was closed at that time of year. At a bar/restaurant we were at, we learned that there would be live music later that night--but we couldn't stay for it.

The running joke of the trip was that we were hitting everything in the "window of no opportunity."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:13 AM on July 16, 2002

To those not in the know: delmoi is not trying to disrupt the conversation. That is the infamous "Cliche Kitty".
posted by ColdChef at 8:13 AM on July 16, 2002

it's really hard to describe a tear rolling gently down someone's cheek without using a cliche. I mean, what the fuck are you supposed to say? There are no synonims for 'rolling' that conveigh the same meaning at all. none! I spent like 20 minutes once trying to think of something else and I failed.
posted by delmoi at 8:13 AM on July 16, 2002

a tear dripped from her eye down her porcelain cheek like a leak from a bathroom faucet down the side of the bowl of the sink

oh wait, i think that's supposed to be in this thread.
posted by witchstone at 8:26 AM on July 16, 2002

"We teach best what we need to know most."
posted by joemaller at 8:27 AM on July 16, 2002

[Verbs] flow, run; meander; gush, pour, spout, roll, jet, well, issue; drop, drip, dribble, plash, spirtle, trill, trickle, distill, percolate; stream, overflow, inundate, deluge, flow over, splash, swash; guggle, murmur, babble, bubble, purl, gurgle, sputter, spurt, spray, regurgitate; ooze, flow out (egress)

You're right. None of those seems to work. I do like the word "spirtle", though.
posted by ColdChef at 8:27 AM on July 16, 2002

Heh. My favorite poetry teacher used to tell us to "save the cliches." Meaning that we had to figure out how to write about a tear rolling down one's cheek and make it fresh. Otherwise all real emotions would eventually become too 'low' for an art that would be empty and 'slick.'
posted by n9 at 8:40 AM on July 16, 2002

delmoi: Tears generally only 'roll' down cheeks on TV and in movies. Write around it or skip the prose: "She cried." Fork your thoughts and deal with more than one problem at a time. Twenty minutes of thinking was apparently not enough.

I can't bring myself to say this. (And this seems like the wrong thread to point out irony.)
posted by joemaller at 8:41 AM on July 16, 2002

I was in agreement with what delmoi suggested but then realized that the other night, watching some moving film on TV, a drop or two (tears) began to form...but this was not the same thing as crying--is the difference in the quanity?
posted by Postroad at 8:48 AM on July 16, 2002

That's interesting. A foreigner's impressions:

Ideally, tears should fall. But falling in English has an accident connotation - so "tears fell down his face" makes one thing of tumbling, because of the fall + down combination. Though it should be OK to say "tears fell from his eyes", falling makes one think of quick, often accidental descents.

The same happens with run. Though again correct, it automatically suggests speed, which is not the case.

Drop is absolutely correct (teardrop) but somehow implies something planned, which tears usually aren't.

The only solution, in English, is to use a secondary verb (tears filled/covered/drenched/speckled her face) or just say someone cried and add an adverb (softly/openly) if you must.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:51 AM on July 16, 2002

joemaller: But you see, she didn't cry. No sobs, no rasping breaths. Just tears, a few, on an otherwise emotionless face. Now, maybe that doesn't really happen. It seemed like something that would have happened in the situation though, with the person she was.

Part of the reason was that I was trying to give an "old black and white" movie feeling to the text, you know a sort of melodramatic air, or something.

Now, how can I convey that without mentioning the tear rolling down her cheek? I mean I suppose I could say something like "She was quiet, her face unmoving, and unemotional. Tears collected in the satin sheets below." It's a bit convoluted, I think. Maybe I didn't spend 20 minutes, but still.


actualy, going back and looking at this, it seems she was actualy talking to someone, not just laying there. Here's the paragraph:

"Harlan, Harlan, please." She said, her voice a gental sob. A tear or two rolling down her cheek. "Don't go, don't. I don't under stand why it needs to be you, It's dangerous, still."
posted by delmoi at 8:57 AM on July 16, 2002

"Tears slid down her cheek." Nope. No good. Gives kind of a "slimy" feel.
posted by ColdChef at 9:03 AM on July 16, 2002

How about "A tear spread across her cheek." Because, really, that's what tears do. They don't roll as much as they roll out, leaving a wet path.
posted by ColdChef at 9:06 AM on July 16, 2002


Actually, if you really think about it rolling wouldn't really be a good word either. I mean, 'roll' by itself converges a lot of force, momentum. Something that's unstoppable almost. I mean, unless it's a wheel, you usually need a lot of force to roll something.

It's almost like, because of that clich�©, people just don't pick up any extra connotations from the word 'roll' when they hear it with 'tear'.

And tears don't really rotate, either. If you think about it, they move kind of the same way a snail or slug moves. But of course, you don't want to say slithered, I mean, that just sounds really weird because of the 'gross' connotation of the word. "Crept" would have been an interesting choice, in conveys a slow motion, but it has a sinister feeling about it. It might be a good choice actually, but not for what I was writing.

If there were a *lot* of tears, you could use flow maybe.
posted by delmoi at 9:07 AM on July 16, 2002


How about "A tear spread across her cheek." Because, really, that's what tears do. They don't roll as much as they roll out, leaving a wet path.

Sounds like spreading butter or something :P
posted by delmoi at 9:08 AM on July 16, 2002

Silent movie: the film was paused so that an assistant could put water on one side of the star's face.

A single tear swept down her cheek.

I'm thinking perhaps what joemaller said might be apropos. I'm not sure the single tear isn't a cliche in and of itself. Who actually has only one tear?
posted by goneill at 9:24 AM on July 16, 2002

Delmoi: crept sounds fine to me. It humanizes the tear(which may be bad) but it conveys the movement and speed superbly, imho. Perhaps the American "creep" and "creepy-crawly" thing affects your appreciation of it.

Would "move" be too cowardly?

[Anyone else hearing Marianne Faithful singing "As Tears Go Bye" while they read this thread?]
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:35 AM on July 16, 2002

posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:36 AM on July 16, 2002

How about "spilled"? That gives you the involuntary connotation (nobody spills on purpose) and is even more sentimental than "rolled."
posted by picopebbles at 9:40 AM on July 16, 2002

The bottom line is that at the end of the day the window of opportunity to use cutting edge technology to deliver state of the art content within the dominant paradigm is given short shrift by editors who value the old chestnut over the fresh face.

(Did I get them all?)
posted by briank at 9:42 AM on July 16, 2002

How about substituting another cliche - "A single tear welled up in her eye".

and briank - well, run it up the flagpole and see.
posted by yhbc at 9:43 AM on July 16, 2002

A cliche doesn't really describe; it reminds you of something you've seen, felt, or heard before. As delmoi says, he was looking for that old black and white movie feel. Cliches make writing seem old and tired, and that's why they're no good in creative writing (unless subverted). The article, though, is talking about newspaper usage, where cliches can actually be quite useful as a point of reference (though care should be taken, as cliches and stereotypes aren't all that dissimilar).
posted by chino at 9:47 AM on July 16, 2002

Robert Fulford is a national treasure. Oops.
posted by timeistight at 9:50 AM on July 16, 2002

in still life with woodpecker, tom robbins wrote a beautifully descriptive metaphor for a tear (the best one i've ever read). he tends to use too many metaphors in his fiction for my taste, but this one stayed with me (although i'm sure i'm going to hopelessly mangle it). it went something like:

a tear trembled on the edge of her eye like a fat woman leaning out of a window.
posted by witchstone at 9:52 AM on July 16, 2002

Hmm, delmoi, there's no mention of mucus, crying usually involves a great deal sniffling, reddening of the face, lots of awkward eye movements to slow down tears, or at least just a scrunching up of the face with a few tears escaping despite the crier's intentions. It's not as pretty as when an actor uses a few drops of glycerine in the corner of their eye. You could also add a detail of where the tears go, they go into the corner of the mouth quite frequently.
posted by bobo123 at 9:54 AM on July 16, 2002

A cliche is OK if you think before using it and it says what you mean to say better than some other string of words. A cliche is bad if you use it over and over to express different things instead of thinking about better (maybe simpler, or more honest) ways to say what you mean. For example, journalists often write 'in the wake of' when it appears that they mean 'because of' or 'after' or 'since' because, after being too lazy (or too hurried) for too long, everything for them happens 'in the wake of' something. And if I were a crying man, that would make me cry. Maybe tears would slip or slide or glide or roll or run or trickle or pour down my face.

Jesus blubbered.
posted by pracowity at 11:23 AM on July 16, 2002

A good tip, if you know another language, is to translate what you write. Pracowity's good "in the wake of" example, for instance. When writing in English you think nothing of it (cliches creep in). Try to translate it and you get waves and funerals. The red cliche light switches on.

In Portuguese, the crying cliches are, literally:

1) "He cried like [a] Mary Magdalen";
2) "She opened her little taps";
3) "She broke out[or down] in tears"
4) "He untied himself crying" [let go; unknotted himself].

In English they sound ridiculous, right? Cliche alert!

You don't even need to know a foreign language. Babelfish it and anything that looks weird is probably language-specific or cliche-ridden.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:39 AM on July 16, 2002

"A cliche doesn't really describe; it reminds you of something you've seen, felt, or heard before". That hits the nail right on the head. Well, the writing is on the wall, so...
posted by Mack Twain at 12:15 PM on July 16, 2002

4) "He untied himself crying" [let go; unknotted himself].

In English they sound ridiculous, right?

I dunno, I think "He untied himself with tears" is kind of nice.
posted by rushmc at 12:23 PM on July 16, 2002

I think all of you are way out in left field on this.
posted by UncleFes at 12:28 PM on July 16, 2002

Well, that's the way the cookie crumbles.
posted by ColdChef at 12:30 PM on July 16, 2002

At least we're in the ballpark.
posted by ODiV at 1:04 PM on July 16, 2002

You guys are boring me to tears.
posted by Down10 at 1:30 PM on July 16, 2002

Down10, don't go away mad. Just go away. (any cliche that references motley crue is good in my book) (please put the accent over the e in cliche and the umlaut over the u in crue).
posted by witchstone at 1:35 PM on July 16, 2002

Couldn't you kind of glide over the tears part, and hint at it? Whenever I'm stumped, I try to take it another direction. Like:

She could taste the cool salt of her tears as they dripped by the corner of her mouth.

Or something equivalent such as feeling a wetness slide along your cheek, hang on by the jaw a moment, and fall. That's a rather strange sensation, if you think about it... though most of the time you'd be too caught up your feelings to pay it much attention. The fact that the character even notices a detail like that would tell you something about the way he/she was feeling.
posted by e^2 at 7:41 PM on July 16, 2002

A quicksilver tear glistened down her cheek.
[Frothy enough?]
posted by Opus Dark at 11:03 PM on July 16, 2002

A cliche doesn't really describe; it reminds you of something you've seen, felt, or heard before....The article, though, is talking about newspaper usage, where cliches can actually be quite useful as a point of reference.1

one time, while i was agonizing over 'le mot juste', my editor told me a story about what some famous editor (i don't remember who) once said:
the presses had been stopped while some reporter dashed off a last minute piece about a daring rescue by helicopter of some people from a sinking yacht. editor walks into the newsroom and spots reporter just sitting and staring at his typewriter.

editor blows up: 'what the hell are you doing just sitting there?! don't you know we've stopped the goddamn presses for this? do you have any idea how much money every second is costing the paper?'

reporter says: 'i can't think of how to describe the rescue in a way that's not cliched. how did the helicopter retrieve the boaters?'

editor: 'it 'plucked' them. helicopters always pluck. now finish your damn story.
the point is that, particularly in newspaper writing, cliches are not only useful but are often necessary. remember the audience — and how much its members values 'the familiar'.
posted by mlang at 7:13 AM on July 17, 2002

pluck you, mlang.
posted by ColdChef at 7:50 AM on July 17, 2002

I'm late to this party, but what's wrong with "A solitaire tear trickled", etc?
posted by walrus at 9:34 AM on July 17, 2002

what's wrong with "A solitaire tear trickled"

the fact that solitaire is a card game?
posted by witchstone at 9:56 AM on July 17, 2002

Solitaire (noun)
1 : a single gem (as a diamond) set alone

posted by walrus at 10:02 AM on July 17, 2002

damn. my bad. still think solitary would work better in that sentence, though.
posted by witchstone at 10:24 AM on July 17, 2002

"Solitary" wouldn't remind me of how diamonds (and tears) splinter light, but it would have the advantage of not misleading people into the secondary meanings of words. I'm also reminded at this point that I don't know what equivalent there might be for this: ;-) which isnt considered hackneyed.
posted by walrus at 10:39 AM on July 17, 2002

Wait! I got it!
"So I quickly handed her a Kleenex, so I wouldn't have to find a way to describe her cliched bawling."
posted by ColdChef at 11:56 AM on July 17, 2002

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