The other day I was staring at a blank page. I wanted to write a story to illustrate a saying. I wrote one line and just stared at it. The only thing that came to mind was, “But, is it a cliché?”
But, is it Cliché?
One strategy I’ll use when writing a story is to explore a common saying. This can be something like, “honesty is the best policy” or “bite the bullet” or even “once bitten, twice shy.” These common adages can be clichés. Nothing is wrong with starting from a cliché and exploring its nuances. You see, sometimes I still get stuck in my own head wondering if it’s okay to use them.
nDash recommends that to use a cliché effectively, it cannot be used as a crutch. This boils down to laziness vs. the ability to convey an idea clearly. For example, a character trying to “think outside the box” solves a problem with a small level of additional consideration. This embodies lazy usage – important to keep in mind when writing to illustrate a saying. However, they give three contexts to support using clichés:
- “When communicating a complicated topic to a broad audience.” This is a fairly forgiving reason to use a cliché. Sometimes a turn of phrase is common enough that it’s the most succinct and accurate way to convey information.
- “When expressing humor.” In writing, especially for certain audiences, leveraging a cliché can help to make a connection. It sets a familiar foundation or context for future communication. In a story, it establishes a context to explore or subvert.
- “When creating a conversational tone.” This is one where I am a strong proponent. I prefer to use a conversational tone.
God is in the Details
Knowadays offers a perspective on how to edit clichés. The way they examine the possibly problematic phrases is first, “Does it serve a purpose?” Does it move the story forward, summarize an idea, or resonate with a specific audience? This advice aligns with what nDash outlined. Next, “Can it be reworded?” Find a different way to phrase the sentence. Have you considered imagining solutions outside of our current constraints? “Does it need to be there at all?” Filler phrases that people commonly say out loud don’t always translate well to writing.
Personally, I like filler phrases for certain characters’ perspectives. It provides a view into how they see the reality around them. If you listen to Ann’s Tale, you’ll find out what I mean. Before the perspective switches to Sir Roger’s you’ll hear more of how a young Ann compartmentalizes the world around herself to make sense of a larger conflict.
Where There’s a Will There’s a Way to Illustrate a Saying
Exploring tired sayings can reinvigorate them. So, if you say to yourself, “I want to write a story to illustrate the saying…” my advice is to go for it! One strategy would be to deconstruct the phrase, its origins, interpretations (or misconceptions), and its antithesis. This may sound like extra steps. It is the type of exercise that can help you find how to advance the story or scene. If you’re inspired and focused – write!
Deconstruct the Phrase
First, take the saying you’re examining and pull it apart. Let’s start with “Honesty is the best policy.” One way I like to deconstruct a saying is to grab some definitions. If you don’t have a dictionary within arm’s reach, Google is your friend.
- Adherence to the facts : SINCERITY
- Fairness and straightforwardness of conduct
- obsolete : CHASTITY
- Superlative of GOOD : excelling all others
- Most productive of good : offering or producing the greatest advantage, utility, or satisfaction
- Get the best of : to overcome or outdo (someone or something) : to get the better of
- Prudence or wisdom in the management of affairs
- Management or procedure based primarily on material interest
- A definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions
- A daily lottery in which participants bet that certain numbers will be drawn from a lottery wheel
From this, we could write a story illustrating the saying “honesty is the best policy”, but explore that phrase with any of the less common definitions like “chastity outdoing a daily lottery”.
Origins and Etymology
Second, you’ll want to understand where your saying came from. What birthed it? When, how, and why? Again, searching online is your friend. I found this origin on Grammarist:
The expression honesty is the best policy is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, an American statesman who lived in the 1700s. However, the phrase honesty is the best policy may be traced to Sir Edwin Sandys, an official for the Virginia Company, which founded the first American colony in Jamestown, Virginia. In his work, Europae Speculum, written in 1599, he wrote: “Our grosse conceipts, who think honestie the best policie.”
We can take this as inspiration for a story – the concept of the colonial United States. Or, if trying to work through a scene in a story, consider leveraging a misconception based on an event 100 years prior.
Next, you need to understand how people use the phrase. Does it mean the same thing to everyone? Are there different interpretations or misconceptions?
Interestingly, when researching the phrase I found a few different interpretations of it. “Deception has many pitfalls so it is much better just to be honest” from bookbrowse and “The proverb ‘Honesty is the best policy’ has a straightforward literal meaning, which encourages the populace to tell the turth and avoid crime” from phrases.org.uk. The second one seems to align better with the origin of the phrase, but the former tends to be how I hear people use the phrase. This ambiguity allows us to find some wiggle room in how to interpret and use the cliché in writing a story.
Illustrate a Saying with its Antithesis
“Honesty leads to simplicity, but dishonesty leads to duplicity – the exact opposite.” – Becoming Minimalist
Finally, I’ll research Opposite or twisted interpretations. Think “cheating is the best policy” or “deception is the best policy.” Or, even “honesty is the worst policy.”
A solid subversion of “honesty is the best policy” that came to my mind is from Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. It is without irony that Huck feels guilty for assisting a slave seeking freedom since that is the law of the land. Turning in his friend, Jim, would follow the adage of honesty being the best policy. However, in this situation the truly good action is to disregard laws and honesty. This is an excellent example of how the antithesis of a phrase examines it as a lens.
A Quick Draft to Illustrate a Saying
Theodore did not run towards the town square. But, he did not walk either. It was a measure of steps chasing after each other clumsily to the onlooker, but effective in its gait. His one hand held his side, still injured from last night’s brawl, while his other pulled his hood tight. Theodore didn’t want anyone from the recent conflict to recognize him. Or worse – a red coat.
If only Henry and Nicholas had kept their mouths shut. Blaming the king for troubles did no one good. Especially since they were now in the stocks awaiting trial. Theodore’s pace quickened as much as he could allow it.
In the center of town were his two friends. Smirks and bruises and hungover, but they were alive. Their ankles were locked into the stocks. Their demeanor reminded him of when they were schoolboys. The grins of fools who expect only a slap on the wrist. Even from a distance, Theodore could read Henry’s lips. “Why are we locked up? Isn’t honesty the best policy?”
Honesty is the Best Policy
Honestly, I doubt I’ll use that little bit of a story in anything. It could probably use a few revisions anyway. The exercise still freed me when I got stuck. Along those lines, I hope you can see how to write a story to illustrate the saying, “honesty is the best policy” and have a good understanding of using clichés in writing.