Finding the Unfamiliar Phrase


There’s a moment in Macbeth (Shakespeare’s, not mine) when Macduff is brought news of the murder of his wife and children. It takes him an agonizingly long time to process the information he has received and he ends with these lines:

All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

That “one fell swoop” may not be the earliest instance of the phrase in English but it’s certainly the origin of our use of it as a cliché meaning simply, “all at once.” But if you look at the original context, the phrase means far more than that. Macbeth is the hell-kite, and here kite is the bird of prey. Macduff’s children are the pretty chickens and their mother is the dam, so the fell swoop becomes something very specific: the terrible (“fell” in the sense Tolkien uses it) attack of a raptor in a barnyard. It’s a harrowing and vivid image of the hawk’s indiscriminate slaughter.

Of course, we don’t hear that in the phrase anymore. Out of context, the words have no specificity and “one fell swoop” is now so familiar that even when we put the phrase back into its original context we are unlikely to catch the full horror of the image.

That’s what happens to clichés. They become dull with use, muting what might once have been graphic or arresting, making the phrase passive. We understand the cliche, but it has lost its power to move or paint its subject’s potency. This is why good writers avoid them.

A couple of weeks ago I referenced Scott Lynch’s wonderful Lies of Locke Lamora. There’s a simple phrase in there that has stuck in my head. A character “reaches into the pockets of his weather-eaten coat.”


Not Weather beaten. That would be a cliché. Weather eaten. The words speed toward cliché and veer off at the last second, dodging the familiar by deftly dropping a single letter and giving us something fresh in its place. (In fact Lynch didn’t invent the phrase for this moment, but that’s okay: it still feels new compared to the alternative).

The phrase arrests the reading eye (mine at least) and made me do a double take. Was it a typo? I realized quickly that it wasn’t, or that if it had been once, it had been left in deliberately because it worked.

Instead of the weather beaten coat—a generic staple of stories and thus barely noticeable—I suddenly saw the weather-eaten coat: a garment actually half devoured by wind and rain.

Does it make much difference? Not especially, I suppose; but I love phrases like this,
simple words that nudge you into wakefulness and put you right into the scene so that you see it, feel it afresh.

Here are a couple more nice phrases from Brenna Yovanoff’s latest haunting YA, The Space Between Us:

“The doors wheeze shut behind me.”
“Moloch lowers his chin and smiles, showing a mouthful of gray, crowded teeth.”
“I’m captivated by his wheat-blond hair.”
“The mural is of the temptation in the Garden and the apples are all done in pulsing, molten red.”
“The Eater smiles a wide, festering smile.”
“His fingers are tangled in mine.”
“Deidre’s voice is like mercury, thick and quick and silver. She has on a black strapless dress that’s fine as smoke…”
“Her lips are the wet, red color of blood and candy.”

Simple, ordinary words, but placed in slightly surprising ways so that they resonate and evoke.

I said earlier this year that I recommended that novelists read poetry, because good verse uses language in new and startling ways to create particular effects, and the avoidance of cliché is one of them. These are great skills to hone if you are a writer of any kind, particularly a novelist, where you want your word choice to be evocative and economical. Over use of such eye catching phrases can be distracting, of course, and looks show offy, but with moderation, an arresting phrase can massively improve your work.

We’re all prone to literary laziness so this is a great exercise to give your beta readers. Have them mark any phrase which feels bland or predictable, any moment where the words aren’t pulling their weight, and see if you can come up with better.

Any favorite examples of vivid anti-cliches or instances of once potent phrases which have become too familiar to still be powerful? Any snippets from your own work where you have replaced something drab with something more interesting?


21 comments to Finding the Unfamiliar Phrase

  • TwilightHero

    I’m currently reading John le Carre’s latest thriller, Our Kind of Traitor – not usually my thing, but reading across the genres is good for you and all that. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’m enjoying it, and at least part of that is because the author does exactly what you describe here: he comes up with vivid descriptions. An ageing spy roosting on a chair as he reads the newspaper; windshield wipers groaning and sobbing in a rainstorm. I’ve got to start coming up with lines like these 🙂

  • Some years ago I was reading a William Gibson novel when I ran across a phrase that’s haunted me since. In describing a woman, he said “her hair fell, like grace exhausted.” How gorgeous must that be?

  • One of the things I’m doing with my latest work is finding new phrases, slightly new ways of saying things, because it’s a noir piece. I want that rolling sort of witty banter that those characters have. Of course, some of them are intentionally cliche. 😉

  • AJ, I love the slightly-off phrase, too. In fact, I took a college course in poetry from a two time Gutenberg winner for just that purpose — to teach my brain to think in sparse, economical, slightly twisted ways. That class was a wonderful boost to my writing and I highly recommend others do the wame. Also, a lot of colleges and universities will let people sit in on classes. Or you can just pick up a poetry book (by someone who has won awards) and read. Librarians can help with this. It *will* help.

  • A cliché becomes a cliché because it is often the most-direct way of expressing an idea or concept. Used discriminately (and not treated by the author as though he invented it), a cliché is ofttimes the most economical and effective wording one can employ. And good writing is all about economy and effectiveness. As Fowler said, “The obvious is better than obvious avoidance of it.” Be original and elegant when you can, but if your words start becoming tortuous just to avoid a common phrase, it may be better just to use it and move on, and not distract the reader with verbal gymnastics.

  • Twilight,
    I love Le Carre for precisely the reasons you cite. His use of language makes his situations more real and stops them drifting into James Bond territory. He’s the master of the grubby, realist spy thriller.

    Misty, great example. Thanks.

    Good luck, Daniel!

    good suggestion.

    I don’t agree, but then you knew that, and I’m not in the mood to argue.

  • I love learning the origins of phrases like “one fell swoop”. Is there a good place to research these things (yeah, I know, Google), or a book where someone has already done the work?

  • Dave,
    you might try this site (though I’ve no idea how good it is)

    Also, at least as far as individual words are concerned, the full Oxford English Dictionary has excellent etymological sources.

  • PeterLast

    I’ve actually found that cliches help me a lot of times as long as they are used correctly. I love to use them to deliver a cliched feel.
    On the other hand, I understand exactly what you are saying. Coming up with new phrases goes a long way toward keeping a reader’s attention and making a story seem new. Thanks for the advice!

  • I’m really pleased you liked LLL so much. Lynch is a great writer. I’m also loving those last two from Brenna Yovanoff. I think I’ll have to pick that up.

    I don’t have any books on me ATM, but I’ll look for a couple as I’m reading tonight.

  • Peter
    using cliche to make something feel cliched makes sense, so long–of course–that your reader gives you credit for the deliberation!

    I really enjoyed Yovanoff’s The Replacement which was very original and evocative. Enjoying SPACE very much too.

  • Razziecat

    From Carol Berg’s “The Spirit Lens”:

    …”Dante’s magic nipped at my senses like a wolverine’s bite–sharp, vital, as ferocious as everything else he did. I bled envy.”

    And this from the same book:

    “As the broad river Ley rippled and slurped against piers and barges and muddy banks…”

    I could quote from Berg all day. I don’t think I’ve ever found a cliche in her work. From her blog: “Find a word that will evoke the world you’re describing or reveal something about the character who is describing it.” She was talking about individual words, but the it’s the way those words are put together that give us original phrases (rather than relying on cliches).

  • Gypsyharper

    One of the things I love about Jim Butcher’s writing is the way he takes cliche phrases and metaphors and recombines them to get fresh results which I often find both funny and poignant. I don’t have a book to hand at the moment, so I can’t come up with a specific example, but I know every book of his I’ve read has some.

    I’ve also found some really lovely phrases in Barbara Hambly’s work. I can’t remember the exact line (it’s probably been 15 years or so since I read this book) but I recall reading in one of her Star Wars books a description of the sunset that was just perfect. I wished I’d thought of it. 🙂

    And definitely Carol Berg.

    Now I’m off to add Yovanoff’s books to my reading list, because I can tell just from these quotes that I’ll enjoy her writing style.

  • Razzie,
    nice examples: thanks. Sounds like Berg is a woman after my own heart.

    I’m not familiar with Hambly but yes, at his best Butcher is great at this. Enjoy Yovanoff!

  • I never really thought about the fact that when we use cliches, we might, in fact, be misusing them. Like “one fell swoop” meaning, in most minds, all at once. It’s like a once great phrase has been diminished, and every time we use it we diminish it even more, which saddens me in ways that I can’t describe. Not to mention what (mis)using a cliche does to our own writing. I’ll be chewing on this one for a while.

  • ajp88

    This is part of why I really like Martin’s world. He invents his own cliched phrases for the characters to recite in their various cultures. “As useless as nipples on a breastplate,” is a particular favorite.

  • J.J.
    thanks for that. I feel the same sense of loss every time I read/dear those lines from the play. The dramaturg in me wants to stand up and start explaining to the audience why they are so much richer than they seem!

    yes, made up cliches are a great way of world building and spicing up dialogue, because while the characters think of them as familiar words, they are new to the reader.

  • You’ve reminded me of a time years ago when I was teaching high school and one of my 9th graders complained that Shakespeare wasn’t such a good writer because everything he wrote was a cliche!

    I do read poetry for language inspiration. I also find some songwriters great for creatively concise phrases. One of the reasons I’ve always loved Bob Dylan is the way he uses cliches. Sometimes he uses a cliched situation with a twist, and sometimes he takes a cliche and changes it slightly. A couple of my favorites:

    “I’ll see you in the sky above
    In the tall grass, in the ones I love
    You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go”

    “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes, then you’d know what a drag it is to see you”

  • Sisi,
    Elvis Costello is another great one for twisting cliches. Try these for size:

    If you’re so wise use your lips and your eyes
    Take it to the bridge she sighs

    You go cheep cheep cheep between bulleyes and bluster
    Stiff as your poker face
    Keener than mustard
    From your own back yard to the land of exotica
    From the truth society to neurotic erotica

    Silence is golden
    Money talks diamonds and ermine
    There’s a word in Spanish
    Italian and German
    In sign language, morse code, semaphore and gibberish
    Have you forgotten how to say it
    In your Pidgin English?

  • A bit late to this particular party, but I want to recommend studying lyrics as well as poetry. I’ve always thought of lyrics as different than simply poetry set to music, and I’ve found innumerable examples there of startlingly fresh turns of phrase. They’re short by virtue of the lyric format while some poetry can have very long phrases/lines.

    From “Cure For This” by Golden Smog:

    You’re a long-forgotten truth
    In the twilight of my days


    Put your future in a box
    Paint today your velvet world

    Lines like that aren’t going to be appropriate for every story, but they’re very evocative while being compact. Sometimes, I choose words more for emotional effect than pinpoint accuracy.

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