Deformed Cliches

13Mar12

A quick entry today….

And from the Stygian abyss of the past, dear reader, I bring an evangelical gospel of good news, nothing less than a divine commandment….

Receive this blog post as an omen!!!

Because today at SpecTechnique we’re looking at deforming cliches, and how to bend ‘em back into shapes that are fresh again.

Here’s what I mean:

This Jones was really starting to get under her lotioned skin.

– John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

[Des Lupeaulx] was feeling the beat of what little heart he had when, on the staircase, he ran into his lawyer…

-Balzac, Les Employes / The Bureaucrats

If you’re as smart as M. John Harrison you can use a cliche into the skeleton on which to hang a brilliant sentence:

Glued to its own feeble destiny in the leaden blue moonlight, the clique at the Bistro Californium regarded its own navel with surprised disgust.

-MJH, A Storm of Wings

Another move is to add to the cliche or push past the cliche. Here’s a bit from the early Robert Silverberg novel, Invaders from Earth, when the POV character Kennedy is hit with a surprise.

Kennedy kept his face blank of emotional reaction. The “agency mask,” Marge called it privately.

Yawnworthy, right? We’ve all seen this exact same line used dozens of times. But Silverberg makes it new by one-upping it in the next sentence:

 What Marge didn’t know was that frequently the agency mask hid an equal blankness of inner feeling.

You can also do this with moments in sentences that aren’t exactly cliches, but still lead the reader into a conclusion. In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, POV character Hans Castorp is talking to his cousin Joachim about the young Marusya, another guest at the sanatorium:

“Her name’s Marusya, if you please — it’s about the same as our Marie. Yes, she really is too enthusiastic,” he said. “When she has every reason to be more sedate, because she’s more than a little ill.”

“You’d never know it,” Hans Castorp said. “She’s in such good shape. You’d never take her for someone with a weak chest.” And he tried to catch his cousin’s eye, but discovered that Joachim’s tanned face looked all blotchy, the way tanned faces do when the blood rushes out of them, and that he had wrenched his mouth into a peculiar, woeful expression that gave Hans Castorp a vague fright and caused him immediately to change the subject. He asked about certain other people and tried to forget both Marusya and Joachim’s expression—

Well? Do you think he can?

Come on! Can anybody in literature ever successfully forget an ominous hint? We practically know beforehand the end of the sentence is going to read “—but he couldn’t.” Right? So Mann writes:

 —and was totally successful at it.

The strength of the deformed cliche is that it lures the reader into expecting the familiar, and blindsides him with the new.

Continuing that problematic metaphor, this is a sentence-by-sentence technique for making your prose punchier. (groan…)

Also, when editing your MS, it’s sometimes nice to take a break from erasing cliches and spend some time expanding them or flipping them around.

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