Ten Commandments 100One of the ten commandments of creative writing must certainly be Thou Shalt Not Use clichés. The difference with writing commandments, of course, is that there’s always an “except…”

Except, perhaps, in the case of the hated cliché, or nearly so.Which is a bit of a surprise, when you consider that a good argument can be made for the use of clichés in dialogue. After all, faithful dialogue should imitate how people really speak, yes?Well, no, according to the same experts. Be an artist, not a scrivener. A literary author delivers enhanced reality, not simply a playback tape.

Abjure ye then also dialect, if you would be well-regarded as an author. It may have been fine for Samuel Clemens, but we’ve moved on since Huck Finn. Reader sensibilities are too refined today, and would be offended by a faithful rendition of how people really speak.

The stock justification for invoking the “except” clause in the case of any of the Commandments is usually when “it advances the effect you are trying to achieve.” Only it appears that clichés are so painful to the purist’s ear that they represent an exception to the exception justification. So when, if ever, can a cliché be permissibly included in prose intended for consumption by those with advanced sensibilities? When indeed.

Last night I encountered just such a unicorn in The Constant Gardener, one of David Cornwell’s (John le Carré) better known novels of intrigue.For those who have not read him, Cornwell belongs to that upper echelon of novelists (Graham Greene is another) that are regarded as literary authors that happen to write genre fiction.

The scene of the crime is set by Sandy Woodrow, a British diplomat, accompanying Justin Quayle to identify the body of Quayle’s wife at the Nairobi morgue. At this point the reader is aware that Woodrow (married) was – is- secretly in love with Tessa, Quayle’s lovely, spirited young wife, and that prior to its removal to the morgue her body had been brutalized, and also locked in a car for 36 hours in the blinding summer heat of Kenya.

When the two are led to view the horrifically altered body, Quayle reacts with stoicism. But Woodrow is unmanned by the experience. Quayle progresses directly from confirming her identity to what must be done by way of funeral arrangements, but Woodrow is not up to the task:

“Well, I suppose that will have to depend a bit on the police,” said Woodrow gruffly and was barely in time to make it to a cracked hand basin, where he vomited his heart out while Justin the ever-courteous stood at his shoulder with his arm round him, murmuring condolences.

So there you have it – “vomited his heart out.” The exception to the exception to the exception is you may commit the cardinal sin of cliché if by doing so you can demonstrate how frightfully clever you really are.  Now you know.

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