Clichés on the Brain

Have you ever found that it is much easier to remember information gleaned from a story than from a list of straight facts? There is a scientific reason for this, and it’s all to do with the way the brain interprets information. Facts generally only elicit reaction from two parts of the brain: the Brocas’s Area and the Wernicke’s Area. (Here is a handy explanation and diagram). These are language processing parts of the brain, which attribute meaning to the words but nothing else.

A story activates multiple parts of the brain. The same language processing areas still react, but other sensory perceptions also come into play. If the story involves a description of the scent of tequila, for example, you might find yourself caught up in a vivid memory of the time you were really hung over and kept wretchedly imagining that you smelled tequila everywhere, only to come to the glum and inescapable conclusion that it was actually emanating from your skin, and then resolved never to imbibe that particular poison ever again. Um, just as a random example.

Anyway, my point is, stories have the ability to activate sensory parts of the brain, which engage the audience with the setting or characters. This in turn can awaken responding emotions, and even plant ideas into the head of the reader. Pretty cool, right?

In order for this to occur though, words have to mean things. That sounds obvious, I know, but sometimes a phrase becomes so commonplace that the brain skips over it, without eliciting any emotional response from the person hearing or reading it. Yes, friends, I’m talking about clichés, and this is exactly why you need to avoid them in your writing. To connect with your audience, you need to use phrases that capture their attention and make them empathize with the idea. Writers and storytellers need to constantly come up with new ways to phrase things.

If that makes you more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs, never fear, you can easily find lists of clichés online. It’s not like searching for a needle in a haystack. These handy lists will help you to coin your own phrases, so there won’t be any reason to drown your sorrows over difficult word choices. You won’t have to read over your manuscript, tail between your legs, dejectedly finding cliché after cliché. Even without the lists of clichés, there are always critique partners to help catch these scurrilous phrases. Plus, a critique partner will be happy when you return the favour with his or her first draft. You know what they say, a friend in need is a friend indeed.

Am I the only one who immediately thinks of Mary Bennett when hearing that phrase?

Am I the only one who immediately thinks of Mary Bennett when hearing that phrase?

So take the bull by the horns, and test your mettle in writing by weeding out clichés as much as possible. My humble advice would be not to worry about this too much in the first draft – it’s more important to get the story down on paper. Subsequent edits are a good time to read through with an eye on the use of clichés. Probably the third draft is the best time, because the third time is the charm, right?

Okay, enough clichés. I’m scared I will get addicted to using them now.

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