Restoring the Power of Clichés


How a cliché becomes a cliché

When a particular cliché was first used (before it became a cliché), it created an impact. It used words in an interesting and novel way. The person who heard or read the expression might have thought, “Gosh, that’s a really creative way to express that idea.” Then, when other people began to use that expression, they were not clever; they were copycats. Having no interesting ideas of their own, they used someone else’s idea. When many people do this, the once clever expression became a cliché.

Restoring the power of the clichés

Here’s the challenge: Take a dull cliché and restore its original power and impact. Remember, the first time the now cliché was used, it was interesting because it provided a new way of thinking about something. You can modify a cliché so that it does this again. We have three strategies for restoring the power of a cliché.

To demonstrate the three strategies, we will use the following two clichés:

  1. “It’s the journey that matters, not the destination.
  2. “We agree to disagree.”

Strategy One: Word Reversal

Find the key words in the cliché and put them in the opposite order.

In the first example, the key words are “journey” and “destination,” in that order. Using this strategy, we reverse their order:

“It’s the destination that matters, not the journey.”

The reader will realize that this statement is based on the cliché, but that you have done something to it. You have made it new and different than what the reader is accustomed to. That makes it interesting, and the reader will have to think about what the expression means when stated this way. The reader gets involved in thinking about your idea. That’s impact.

In the second example, the key words are “agree” and “disagree,” in that order. Using this strategy, we reverse their order (and modify it a bit to make it grammatically correct):

“We disagree about agreeing.”

The reader notices the statement because it looks like the familiar cliché. It gets attention. However, instead of turning off the reader, it engages him. It’s different than what he expected. “But what,” he might ask, “does it mean now?” The reader is thinking about your idea and the new way you have expressed it.

Strategy Two: Word Replacement

Find the key words in the cliché and replace them.

In the first example, you can replace “journey” with a different word, such as “company.” This gives you the following expression:

“It’s the company that matters, not the destination.”

This sentence doesn’t have the same meaning as the cliché, even though it looks like it. By changing one of the key words, you are expressing a new idea, a new concept. The reader will realize that you have used a different word, and that new word will have high impact, i.e., power. We could have replaced “destination” for the same effect.

The second example is trickier. To transform it, we have to understand what made it interesting originally. The two key words are closely related: they are antonyms and they look and sound similar. If we replace just one of the words, this will no longer be true. It will no longer look like the original cliché, the reader won’t focus on it, and the statement won’t have power. After some thought, here’s one option:

“We promise to make no promises.”

This is a completely new idea, based on the structure of the original cliché. While the reader may not recognize it as a transformation of the cliché, he may have the same response to it. As a result, the statement will have the power the cliché has long since lost.

Combining Strategies One and Two

Combine the first two strategies to make them even more powerful.

First we reorder the key words, and then we replace one of them. Using the first sample, the transformed cliché may look like this:

“It’s the company that matters, not the journey.”

Strategy Three: Adding Final Words

Use the cliché without changing it, but then add an impact statement to the end.

With this strategy, the reader sees the cliché, knows what words to expect, and then is surprised by the final words. Those final words give a new way of thinking about the concept expressed by the cliché.

Using the first example, we add new words to the end of the cliché, which gives us this:

“It’s the journey that matters, not the destination—unless you’re heading to the bank.”

That final statement changes the meaning of the entire cliché. After catching the reader’s attention, you surprise him with new information. This makes him think about the idea from a new perspective.

You can also add additional information to the end of the second cliché. You might add a condition or contrary information (as with the first example). One possibility is as follows:

“We agree to disagree, but only at home.”

The Reader’s Response to a Transformed Cliché

Let’s think about why we’re doing this. First, we want to get the reader’s attention. Second, we want the reader to think that we’re using words in a new way (a.k.a. being clever). Third, we want the reader to think about our ideas. Together, these three purposes can be summed up as making an impact on the reader. From the reader’s perspective, here’s what happens.

  1. “Ah, a cliché. How dull.”
  2. “Wait a minute. This is different!”
  3. “The writer is pretty clever. He took a cliché and made something new.”
  4. “What sentence does this mean now?”

The end result is a reader who respects your cleverness and is interested in what you have to say. This is the exact opposite reaction you get when using clichés, and it is the exact response you desire.


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