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?