Cliches: I Do Not Think They Mean What Moths Think They Mean

Book Cover I really, really dislike clichés. I dislike them a LOT. And it's not just in writing that I dislike them. I hate when I'm talking to someone and suddenly a chain of corporate speak comes out of their mouth. Sometimes, I overhear people on business conference calls on the train and it's ridiculous, between the touching base, the face-to-face, the circling back, and (my favorite) the calenderize-ing.

Yes. Calendarize.

In romance, there isn't so much calendarizing (though I think if anyone did calendarize something, it would be a villain, or someone rather hapless) but there is no shortage of cliche.

Recently I came across “she drew him like a moth to a flame,” and I may have pulled a lateral rectus muscle rolling my eyes. First, moth to a flame? Really? That's the best language we have?

Second, why a moth being drawn to a flame? If we're describing the hero, which we are, that implies he has no choice in the matter and is drawn to the heroine by some instinctive and reflexive attraction that ultimately will be bad for his mortal state (he's going to get burned to a crisp, right? It IS a flame). That language calls to mind the idea that the hero's attraction to the heroine is predetermined (by moth brains, apparently) and he has little power to choose someone or anyone else, while she has to accept that predetermined attraction as well – and also try not to burn his short hairs, what with all the flaming. Moveover, as the Phrase Finder says, being the moth hero (note: this is not a request for shifter moths, please) means that the hero is a moth, and “moth was used the the 17th century to mean someone who was apt to be tempted by something that would lead to their downfall.”

OMG. FLAMING VAGINA DENTATA people. Watch out! Oh, those pesky heroines with their powerful female wiles, attracting men so they might destroy them.


And third, moths aren't actually attracted to the flame, as some scientists on NPR explained. They're confused by it.

They're trying to either hide from predators that come out at daybreak, or trying to use the moon as navigation and end up distracted by all our porch lights – similar, as the NPR host says, to beach turtles who look for the moon to head back to sea, and head for your patio instead.

So if you unpack that moth/flame cliche, the hero is irrevocably attracted to the heroine, she's dangerous and will contribute to his downfall, AND she's a false signal, a modern, technological replacement for the natural light of the moon. The figure posing as the flame, so often the heroine when this cliche is employed, is in reality a false heroine, and, if used correctly, the language would probably indicate that the temptress is about to be revealed and circumnavigated by the hero due to the stronger, more natural and wholesome pull of the real heroine's full moon.


I find cliches so tiresome because they are lazy, and sometimes, when you examine them closely, the words don't do what the writer thought they were trying to do. The cliche might end up undermining the original intention, which was to say that the hero was powerfully attracted to the heroine, perhaps despite his own intentions. You'd think I'd love that, since I'm a known fan of 'I don't want to like you, I don't want to like you, I can't stop thinking about your hair, DAMMIT' conflict. But I am not drawn to cliches like a moth to a flame. If anything, I'm repelled by them, like a wise insect from the bug zapper.

What cliches do you hate? Which phrases do you wish you didn't see in romances so often?


Ranty McRant

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  1. 1
    snarkhunter says:

    Any comparison between a vagina and a glove. Or a fist. Just…no.

  2. 2
    Gillybags says:

    One that really annoys me is ‘at the end of the day’ don’t know why but it just make me wince!

  3. 3
    BethR says:

    The cliche I hate most is more of a phrase, but I dislike it because so many people get it wrong, adding insult to injury (see, I used a cliche right there!). Anyway, it’s “couldn’t care less”. When I see or hear it as “could care less” you might as well be driving hot nails into my eyes because it annoys me no end. If you are going to be lazy and use an overused expression, at the very least, get it right.

  4. 4
    Taylor Reynolds says:

    “It is what it is.” HATE that damn phrase. HATE. Of course it is what it is, if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be! ARGH!

  5. 5
    Lisa J says:

    I had a boss who used to tell us every day we were in a target rich environment to effect change.  Any time I hear that phrase I want to vomit.

  6. 6

    I’m likely guilty of the “moth to the flame” use because one of my favorite poems is the lesson of the moth[cq]by the great Don Marquis in his collection archy & mehitabel:

    but at the same time i wish
    there was something i wanted
    as badly as he wanted to fry himself

    I think that’s a theme that resonates with romance readers and writers.

  7. 7
    SB Sarah says:

    YES. I HATE THAT PHRASE. It makes me insane. I visibly twitch when people say it.

  8. 8
    SB Sarah says:

    “A target rich environment to effect change?”

    That sounds like a locality with a LOT of Target stores to choose from. Let’s see, there’s the Super Target, the Target Greatland, the regular Target, the Target with the food court… which one should I visit to break this dollar into quarters?

  9. 9
    Patricia M. says:

    If you would like to read a lovely send up of corporate speak, read Elizabeth Bevarly’s My Man Pendleton.  There is a scene where the hero ruthlessly uses corporate speak and random intials (refering to federal agencies, other organizations) to cover the fact that he was not paying attention in a business meeting.  The book is from 1998 so the catch phrases are a bit different but it is still fun.

  10. 10
    Asia Morela says:

    I think the first time when I saw that metaphor used was in Dickens’ Great Expectations, in which Estella is indeed as dangerous as a flame for all the men who are attracted to her (because she will not love them back, but instead probably break their heart and so on).

    Cliche phrases… “Their gazes locked”. In the last romance I read, there was even something like “their gazes locked as if with a pad and a key” and I went, what?! That was pushing the metaphor a little far, LOL.

  11. 11
    Riwally says:

    Not so much of a cliche, but a “catch phrase” which using that terminology is like fingernails across a blackboard (OMG!, a cliche), but I HATE with a purple passion (someone stop me!) is something my boss uses ALL the time which is FYI.  Makes me want to kick her ass up between her shoulder blades (I’m a runaway train!).  Sigh.

  12. 12
    Terry Odell says:

    I’ll forgive cliches in dialogue if characters would be likely to speak that way. And didn’t one high school student grumble about having to read Shakespeare because “his stuff is nothing but cliches”.  (Probably an urban legend by now). My recent pet peeve was the phrase “one off” simply because it suddenly appeared, and then appeared again. And again. And again. It was like someone hit me on the head every time I read it.


  13. 13
    cleo says:

    Connie Willis did something similar in Bellweather – also from the 90s (I think).  The whole book is a send up of fads, corporate and otherwise, and she plays with corporate buzz phrases.

  14. 14
    Guest says:

    Some time ago a friend was reading a medieval romance and in it one character tells another “grow where you’re planted”. Several years later, she still practically froths at the mouth over it.

  15. 15

    There’s a point where all the heroines with a “mouth just a touch too wide” get super annoying.  Especially speaking as someone with a clinically small mouth.

  16. 16
    Jazz Let says:

    archy & mehitabel LOVE!

  17. 17
    Tabs says:

    This discussion is making me think of the great Springsteen song that’s pretty much just Bruce singing one cliche after another for 2 minutes.  Yet, somehow I love it.…

  18. 18
    Joanne says:

    I hate when people say “same difference.”  Ugh! 

    Most annoying romance novel cliche:  During sexytimes, “She no longer knew where she ended and he began.”  The “he” and “she” are interchangeable.  That irks me no end, and I’ve read it in several books recently.  What, did they have some kind of creepy Star Trek transporter accident?  Get careless with a soldering iron or super glue maybe?  So annoying!

  19. 19

    Don Marquis is one of my favorite poets of the 20th century, and I love the books with the George Herriman illustrations.  He too was a fascinating character, an African-American cartoonist most famous for “Krazy Kat” comics.

  20. 20
    dick says:

    When used in situations right for them, cliches express “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed” to cite Alexander Pope.  I doubt anybody misunderstood what the author was implying with the moth’s attraction to the flame.  A lot of the phrases in romance fiction, it seems to me, are jargon, oft-repeated shortcuts—those such as he moved like a large cat; he rode as if part of the horse; he was unusually graceful for such a large man, etc., etc., etc.

  21. 21
    Jim L says:

    Two I’ve seen countless variants of:

    For the heroine: “She had never felt anything like this before.”  You’re in love, we get it, you’re far from the first and it always feels like that.

    For the hero: “He forgot every other woman he’d ever been with before [insert name here].”  Ah yes, how noble of you to reduce every non-heroine romance you’ve ever had to as disposable and forgettable.  T’riffic.

  22. 22
    Darlynne says:

    Deer in the headlights. Really? That’s the best you could do to indicate that someone has frozen in action, is startled or has just seen their mother-in-law come down the stairs naked?

  23. 23
    Gennita Low says:

    “At the end of the day.” I hate it muchly. Because usually the person uttering that phrase will utter it another half a dozen times the next ten minutes.

    Wasn’t there a romance novel titled The Moth and The Flame? :)

  24. 24
    Rowan Speedwell says:

    If there isn’t, there should be. Made up entirely of cliches. I wonder if anyone would notice!

  25. 25
    Lynn Soderstrom says:

    First, great post.  It has me thinking of the possibilities behind the real meaning of the moth/flame relationship.

    Not a cliché, but what is it about the word inexorable that almost every romance I read uses it or its adverbial partner, inexorably, at least once and always describing an action of the hero or the heroine’s reaction to him?  I guess it makes her a more succinct moth to his flame.  I see it often enough, I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t the secret word to get you into a particular branch of the writer’s clubhouse.

  26. 26
    Cherry says:

    Mine were already named. “It is what it is.” Oh my GOD. Of COURSE it is what it is; WTF else would it be?

    And the “where he ended and she began” thing is in SO many books. I facepalm whenever I see it. Let’s retire that already.

  27. 27
    Flo_over says:

    You know… the whole moth to flame does work if you look at it more like a trope of change.  The hero, having encountered the heroine and being “drawn” to her WILL have his old life essentially dragged down.  If he was a rake he’ll be less rakish.  If he was a staid, proper gentleman he might be more inclined to cuss and act out.  However you write it or think it life as the hero knows it is going to most certainly change.  Is that flattering to the heroine?  No.  But it’s one way to look at it.

    Many cliches are also altered by the passage of time.  The etymology of words changes as we alter the words (helloooo adding internet slang to the dictionary anyone?) so the cliches, while still vaguely useful, alter their true meaning.  Moth to flame reminds our current population of possible bug zapper sounds.  Back then it was considered downfall.  Either way it’s not flattering to the heroine.  Which, frankly, I’m OK with.  I get annoyed when the heroes all deal well with their lifestyle changes.  I get annoyed when heroines do it too.  Marriage, and romance even, is work.  Even in romance land dangit!

  28. 28
    Mimi says:

    One thing I disliked about the trashy romance genre was the coercion involved. There were times when I wanted to grab the bitch and say “WAKE UP! That wall your banging your head against, it’s called reality.”
    So really, the cliches aren’t even the worst of it.

  29. 29
    cbackson says:

    I am a business lawyer, so I live and breath corporatespeak, unfortunately:  “the optics on this are bad”; “we should foreground this”; “telecon”, etc.

  30. 30

    “Foreground”?  What does that even MEAN?

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