Avoiding cliché

One of the worst things you can do as a writer is litter your work with cliché. It makes the work sound tired and like it was thrown together.

The problem is that there is a reason clichés get used all of the time and that’s that they are a nice kind of shorthand for what’s going on. They tell you a lot of information without getting you bogged down.

There is however a very nice trick you can use which is the cliché variation. This makes it possible to give the sentiment of the cliché without sounding like you can’t write.

What you do is take a standard cliché and change some of the words and leave the sense intact. This actually happens out in the wild with clichés anyway so it isn’t as much of a surprise to the reader. Here are three examples of what I mean all culled from real life.

You couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery

You couldn’t organise a bun fight in a bakery

You couldn’t organise a fire in a matchbox factory

It most often happens out in the wild when the oldest form is seen as being slightly rude (the piss up one).

By creating your own version you use the shorthand everyone knows to convey the sense, but make it clear that you know your turnips from your swedes.

So, fair gamboling readers, it’s over to you. Just how many different ways are there to describe someone who is poor at organising things using this structure?

16 thoughts on “Avoiding cliché

  1. Alex Andronov says:

    Okay I’ll start us off:You couldn’t find a shit in a sewer.

  2. Nick Ollivère says:

    You couldn’t organise a dewey-decimal system in a library.Actually, this is quite hard.

  3. Alex Andronov says:

    You couldn’t organise silence in a sanctuary.

  4. Alex Andronov says:

    (I got the idea for silence from the library)

  5. Nick Ollivère says:

    You couldn’t organise religion in the Vatican.(I got the idea from the sanctuary)

  6. B.E. Sanderson says:

    I’m drawing a blank. How about ‘You couldn’t organize a caffiene buzz at a Starbucks’? Thanks for stopping by the blog, Alex. =oD

  7. Alex Andronov says:

    I like it!How about, “You couldn’t order flowers at a funeral”.

  8. Alex Andronov says:

    Somebody who refuses to be named forwarded me, “You couldn’t organise an erection in a porn movie”.Keeping with my alliterative style how about, “you couldn’t organise a boner in a bonkbuster”.

  9. B.E. Sanderson says:

    LOL How about You couldn’t organize multiplication at a rabbit farm.

  10. fourstar says:

    I keep thinking of these then getting them confused with that other cliché, the “chocolate teapot” type.Thus I just made myself chuckle slightly with:”You couldn’t find a fart in a spacesuit”

  11. caveblogem says:

    Then there is the Terry Pratchett-style variation: You couldn’t organize a fire in a very flammable place where fire would be easily organized. . . Cool blog, Alex. Thanks for dropping by mine earlier.

  12. Alex Andronov says:

    Ah yes, the Pratchett style is very similar to the Blackadder style (Ben Elton was king of these I think – although Kris will probably correct me), so something like this…”I’m as poor as a church mouse, that’s just had an enormous tax bill on the very day his wife ran off with another mouse, taking all the cheese”Which leads to, something like this…You couldn’t invade the last country in the world, even if you were supreme ruler of all of the other countries, you were considered a god by your people and the country you had to invade only had one person in it….But heaven forfend Ben Elton would have probably written it better! Curses!

  13. Nick Ollivère says:

    It’s also slightly similar style to Douglas Adams, I believe, which probably leads us back to Monty Python, and Spike Milligan…

  14. Alex Andronov says:

    Yes, cf. Douglas Adams with the brilliant subverted cliché: “it hung in the air in exactly the same way that bricks don’t”And yes Douglas Adams wrote for Python, and I think Milligan. So perhaps you have a common source there.But it is a style that goes back even further, to their common great influence Beyond the Fringe. I detect the style here in this most classic sketch: The Great Train Robbery

  15. fourstar says:

    I have now remembered (ok, read: ‘found’) the quote from Blackadder I was looking for:”Is it as cunning as a fox that used to be professor of cunning at Oxford University, but has moved on, and is now working for the UN at the high commission of international cunning planning?”And that Douglas Adams one reminded me of the email doing the rounds a while back which claimed to quote terrible exam similes:”The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.”More of which here: Analogies

  16. Nick Ollivère says:

    Well, Milligan came before Cook and Moore, but they were both big influences on Python, yes.

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