Clever or Cliche? (Alissa Grosso)

When Edward Bulwer-Lytton first wrote the immortal line, "It was a dark and stormy night" it was not a cliche. It's how the opening sentence of his novel Paul Clifford begins and the sentence goes on to give more details about the weather, which while not exactly cliche, might be ill-advised, since no one really gives a fig about the weather. Bulwer-Lytton now has a writing contest named after him - participants compete to see who can write the worst first line. He's also credited with coining other phrases that history has not forgotten including "the pen is mightier than the sword," "the great unwashed" and "the almighty dollar." None of these phrases were cliche when Bulwer-Lytton first wrote them, they would be if you or I tried to write them.

Edward (It was a dark and stormy night) Bulwer-Lytton himself.

The fact is, every cliche started out as one person being clever. It is the repetition of these clever phrases by others that turn them into cliches. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery (Charles Caleb Colton was the clever guy behind this turn of phrase, by the way) writers should be honored when their phrases become immortalized as cliches. So, the first instance of a phrase that becomes a cliche is genius, but repetition turns it into bad writing. The problem lies in determining who the genius is, and who the lazy copycat is. Thankfully, we have Google to solve this dilemma. I'll admit, that up until a few minutes ago I had never heard of Charles Caleb Colton.

Unfortunately it seems that Google can't solve this dilemma until a phrase has been officially ruled a cliche by the general public or the Ministry of Cliches or whoever it is that has determined that a phrase has been repeated so often that it's become trite and unoriginal.

I say this because recently I was reading a book. I won't name names because I don't believe in being catty and mean, and the book was otherwise pleasant and enjoyable, but then I read a phrase that I keep seeing in books and my internal cliche meter began to chime.

The phrase in question was some variation on "his smile didn't reach his eyes." While a smile that doesn't reach the eyes is a perfectly reasonable description, you could also save yourself a few words and write "fake smile" or "phony smile" and mean exactly the same thing. What's more this whole smile not reaching the eyes thing is being used in far too many books. The first person who wrote it was clever. The rest of you are just offering this mysterious individual some very sincere flattery.

Apparently, though, the smile that doesn't reach the eyes has not yet been ruled a cliche by the Official Court of Cliches, a fact that has been firmly established by my Google search on the topic, which means that there is, as of yet, no Wikipedia entry on the genius author who first penned these words. My money's on Edward Bulwer-Lytton.


  1. Hmmm. Not sure how I'd feel about writing an original cliche. I mean, it shows it'd have to have been a super well-known work...But then again, you wrote a cliche that drives future writers batty...

  2. Interesting. It's possible I used this cliche or a version of it. Maybe. But not because I read it elsewhere. I thought I was original. My current work doesn't use this at all. I like what you say about simplicity, though. Too often, as writers, we try to write pretty and get really wordy (I'm guilty of this) when a simple phrase (e.g. fake smile) would bring the point home much sooner. Good post!


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