Have you ever noticed how some people can describe a simple, everyday event and make it sound hilarious or tragic or just plain interesting, while another person can tell the same story and have you snoring with boredom in an instant?
If the language you use to tell a story is vivid and fresh even a familiar experience or idea can come to life, but if you’re talking in overused, predictable phrases – in other words, if you’re using clichés – the most exciting story can become dull. It’s all in the words you choose.
People often speak in clichés.
A cliché is a phrase that’s been used so often it has become a universal way of expressing an idea: “Time flies!” “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” “He’s full of hot air.” “You can count on me.” It’s often the first phrase that comes to mind and you can be pretty sure that everyone knows what you mean.
For example, here’s a description of a workday that’s filled with clichés.
- I guess I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Nothing seemed to go right. I took the bus to work; it was so crowded people were packed like sardines. I was late getting to the office and the boss was hopping mad. The day seemed to drag on and on. I thought six o’clock would never come!
While this paragraph gives you an idea of what the speaker’s day was like, it doesn’t make you feel the boredom and frustration. Familiar phrases such as “packed like sardines,” “hopping mad” and “seemed to drag on and on” have been used so many times they’ve lost their emotional impact. Listeners no longer picture the images or notice the comparisons.
Give your clichés new life.
1. Use a fresh or unexpected comparison: Comparisons are a great way to add energy to a description. There was a time when “packed like sardines” was vivid, fresh, and funny. Listeners really pictured it when they heard it and it made them react. Eventually, so many people liked it and used it that the idea became stale and listeners stopped reacting.
You can create new comparisons that associate one idea with another in ways listeners haven’t heard before. For instance, you could describe a crowded bus like this: “People were wedged together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.” Or you could express exhaustion by saying, “I felt like a balloon that was losing air. Floating an inch off the ground, being kicked around.”
A “broken heart” is a common lyric cliché. To give it new life and make listeners feel it, you could compare it to other breakable objects: “My heart shattered like glass.” Or use words that suggest breaking or tearing: “All I’ve got are the jagged pieces of a heart.”
When faced with a cliché, try making a list of objects, descriptors, or physical sensations you could use as fresh comparisons.
2. Give it a character: When you give human characteristics to an inanimate object, it literally brings it to life for listeners. Try personifying an object in your story: “Some days are criminal. They ought to be locked up.” Of course days are not criminals and no one can literally “lock up” a day but listeners are able to understand that this is what the day felt like.
3. Twist a cliché: You can use a cliché if you surprise the listener by creating a different payoff or explain it in a way that offers a new insight. Instead of “the day dragged on and on,” you might try, “the day dragged on and dragged me down.”
You don’t need to make every single line an ear-catcher. Try mixing vivid, fresh images with conversational language to create a mix. To hear good examples of lyrics that express universal ideas while avoiding or reworking clichés, listen to “Cannonball” by Damien Rice, Sarah McLachlan’s “World on Fire,” and John Mayer’s “Gravity.”
The Cliché Game
Rewrite these clichés using any or all of the techniques listed above.
- I depend on you; you’re my ace in the hole.
- You think you’ve got it made, but soon you’ll change your tune.
- We fight like cats and dogs but things work out in the end.
- Any friend of yours is a friend of mine.
- I’m following in your footsteps.
- My love will last forever and a day.
Find more clichés online at web sites like ClicheSite.com. Practice rewriting them to get in the habit and exercise your creative muscle. Keep a list of your rewritten lines and refer to it next time you’re looking for a song title or idea. Use one of your rewritten clichés as the basis for a song lyric.
by Robin Frederick
This post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.