George Orwell defined a cliché as a “dying metaphor;” but the death of a metaphor is a stubborn one. Indeed, the peculiar nature of a cliché is all in the disparity between how loud it’s yelling, and how little we hear it.
Once upon a time, the notion that a person’s beauty might “take your breath away” must have conjured a visceral reaction – you could feel the constriction of your lungs, the tightening of your throat, and the sharp exhale of air that comes with a sudden and violent impact to your being. But now real estate agents will describe the “breathtaking views” of a condo with a tree outside. And we agree! A tree! Breathtaking.
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 of these turns of phrase involve metaphor or imagery that is so casually used to describe daily events that we simply don’t even notice the image anymore.
Another type of cliché takes this a bit further. They are phrases that are so juiced and dried that hearing them makes us cringe a little: “I can’t live without you,” “standing the test of time,” “my heart was broken”(or perhaps “frozen”), “don’t judge a book by its cover,” “wearing my heart on my sleeve”…and there are many, many more.
The problem with clichés is that they are dull knives. My mother taught me that dull knives are much more dangerous than sharp ones – it’s the dull knives that end up slicing fingers off, because a dull knife doesn’t go where you intend it to go. Clichés don’t do what you intend them to do. They tend to slip off the wrong side and just leave the tomatoes of your ideas squished rather than sliced.
And yet, in spite of this insurgence against clichés, clichés have an important use in lyric writing, because lyric writers – besides people who come up with catchy branding slogans – are perhaps the most beleaguered by the challenge of telling so much story with so few words. We are tasked with creating mansions in the mind, built upon extremely limited real estate. Given that task, we need to arm ourselves with any devices we have at our disposal that can pack a lot of information in as little space as possible. Clichés bring with them a lot of inherent meaning and connotation. They don’t need to be explained or contextualized. History has done that job for us.
So how can we use clichés in a way that exploits their semantic dynamite, but rescues them from their mediocrity? Here are six useful strategies that will not only revive clichés from the land of the dying metaphor, but might also lead you to images and ideas that are unique and original enough that something of a chrysalis can occur – the grub-cliché might peel away to reveal your own glittering, winged metaphor.
Strategy 1: Replace a word or image
Strategy 1 relies on finding clichés that employ specific images, and use a turn of phrase that is so familiar that the ear anticipates the resolution. The aural fireworks happen because of the element of surprise.
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. Or like secrets and loose lips. Or like 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.
Strategy 2: Elaborating/extending
Strategy 2 takes the image that is being used in the cliché, and retains the image, but elaborates 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 ordinate 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: Turning a negative into a positive (or positive into a negative), or simply stating the opposite of the known cliché
For example: The grass is never greener
Or (thanks again, Taylor): Time won’t fly
Strategy 4: Invert the cliché
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: 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: Change the object of the active verb
Strategy 6 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”).
The takeaway from studying clichés should not be to avoid them – 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.
Keppie Coutts is an Australian singer-songwriter, music educator, founder of KC Song Studio and alumna of the ASCAP Lester Sill Songwriting Workshop. For more songwriting insights, visit Keppie online at www.keppiecoutts.com.