“You’ve seen this baguette before,” or, How the Cliche Makes What’s Interesting Disappear

Inexperienced writers use lots of cliches. So I tell my students things like: “Don’t use a comparison if you’ve heard it before. Your reader will have heard it too, probably, and will zoom over it without thinking much about what you’re trying to show them.” Maybe they’ve heard that before, considering how often they don’t seem to think much about what I’m trying to show them.

Blogger Alec Nevala-Lee may have solved my problem:

What else is this man carrying? Who cares–he has a baguette!

You’ve seen this baguette before, he writes.

In any movie or television show in which a character is shown carrying groceries, a big loaf of french bread is invariably seen peeking out over the top of the bag.

And that baguette is there for a reason. For one thing, it’s a convenient prop that is unlikely to wilt under hot studio lights or after hours spent on location. It’s also a handy bit of narrative shorthand. If we see a character carrying a paper bag without any clues about what it contains, we immediately start to wonder what might be inside. The baguette poking out over the top is a visual flag that, paradoxically, actually makes the bag less visible: as soon as we understand that it’s just a bag of groceries, we stop worrying about it.

That’s it! Any image, any figure of speech, any phrase that our readers notice so casually and familiarly that they don’t care what else is in there, they don’t worry about it. If the sack of groceries is incidental, go ahead, stick a baguette in it. But if. There’s. Something. In. That. Sack, by golly, make sure it’s not french bread showing.

(Now, off to use this baguette metaphor–Baguettaphor? Sure!–so often my students ignore everything else in my bag…)

(Read Nevala-Lee’s whole article here.)