We Looked Deeply into the Trite: More Origins of Literary Cliches

November 1934 edition of Boys’ Life magazine (via Trussel)

November 1934 edition of Boys’ Life magazine (viaTrussel)

“Everything Went Black”

The phrase had its heyday in early 20th century Boys’ Life magazines, where a story wasn’t a story without someone falling unconscious. For a few examples, in 1918: “I felt a stinging pain and everything went black”; 1919: “Dawson’s grip tightened on Will’s throat until everything went black”; 1920: “Something struck my head and all went black.”

The cliche evolved from magazine writing in the previous century, where it often related to fainting fits and sickness, such as in Blackwood’s Magazine, 1852: “A fit of sickness came over me. Everything turned dark”; orThe Century, 1877:  “A strange suffocating feeling came upon her; everything turned black before her eyes.”

While the phrase has numerous potential sources, the trope of a character blacking out at the end of a chapter can be traced to a possible originator. In Samuel Richardson’s 1754 novel The History of Sir Charles Grandison, we find a typically melodramatic chapter ending when the heroine (kidnapped by a man whom she refuses to marry) is struck by a door: “My head swam; my eyes failed me; and I fainted quite away.”

May 1759 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine (viaWikipedia)

“He Looked Deeply into Her Eyes”

One of the earliest instances of this stomach-churning line can be found in The Gentleman’s Magazine, specifically it’s 1884 serialised novel Philistia by Cecil Power: “He took her hand in his dreamily: and Hilda let him take it without movement. Then he looked deeply into her eyes, and felt a curious speechlessness coming over him, deep down in the ball of his throat.”

Before stumbling upon the phrase, Power attempts six alternate descriptions of the couple looking at one another: “Hilda looked at him straight (1) and said in her own frank unaffected fashion, ‘So am I, Mr. Berkeley, very sorry, very sorry indeed.’ Arthur looked back at her (2) once more, and their eyes met (3). His look was full of admiration (4), and Hilda saw it (5). She moved a little uneasily upon the ottoman, waiting apparently as though she expected Arthur to say something else. But Arthur looked at her long and steadfastly (6), and said nothing.”

The notion of “gazing deeply” has earlier instances, but often when a character is engaged in thought rather than romance. “Looking deeply into her eyes” became pervasive in 1890s stage directions, including early translations of Ibsen, before migrating to movie scripts and popular magazines in the U.S., where the “ly” ending of the adverb is dropped in favour of “deep into his/her eyes.”

Poster for Lady in the Lake (via IMP Awards)

“You’re Off the Case”

The most likely film inception of this phrase is in Lady in the Lake, a strange 1947 adaptation of a Raymond Chandler story shot almost entirely in first person:

“Well if you think I’m going to settle for a cheap detective you’re sadly mistaken. … You’re off the case. There isn’t any case any more. Now kindly haul yourself out of here and send me a bill for your failure. I never want to see you again.”

In the 19th century, cops occasionally get suspended, but it’s always the hero handing out the humiliation, as in Wilkie Collins’ The Biter Bit: “’Have you come to help me?’ says he. ‘Not exactly,’ says I. ‘I’ve come to tell you that you are suspended till further notice.’”

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that detectives concerned themselves with staying “on the case,” such as in the 1921 story The Black Star by Johnston McCulley: “We’ll … have the police find you two there unconscious. Then let the public laugh! I fancy you’ll hear a howl go up for you to be ordered off the case.”

The blueprint of all subsequent police chief vs. righteous cop scenes seems to arrive in 1916, with The Master Detective by Percy James Brebner. The narrator explains:

They were very trying days for me, for the chief took me off the case when he had heard my story. He could not understand why I had not mentioned at once that I had been with the dead man on the previous night, and his manner suggested that my being the criminal was well within the bounds of possibility.

It’s not hard to see why writers become fixated on the eyes of a romancing couple or pause adventures with a sudden lapse of consciousness or even capture cop dramas with an emblematic ass-handing ceremony. Tropes are the obvious choice, the tools at the top of the writer’s toolbox. But while these origins show that lazy writing has a long history, it’s perturbing that the frequency of old-fashioned cliches increases dramatically the closer we get to the present day.



The Joke by Milan Kundera

The Joke by Milan KunderaThe novel’s story starts with a joke and that joke has devastating consequences for the novel’s protagonist. Communism – the variety in late 40s Czechoslovakia – is exposed as something inherently evil in this novel, in so far as it demands the respect and good will of every citizen. If communism is to work at all, then there can’t be any naysayers, any bitter people sniping from their corners, and certainly not any people who don’t take politics or the state seriously. It is that essential problem of most, if not all, communist states, that render them effectively evil: they presuppose the silencing of anyone who thinks a certain way. Freedom of speech cannot, Kundera seems to be saying, exist in a functioning communist state. The destruction of the life of someone who tells a joke symbolizes that problem. Why does Kundera hate communism? Read this brilliant novel, Kundera’s first, to find out.


Mr A

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabePublished in 1992 this novel has become something of a classic and deservedly so. Rolling out the distinctively-voiced-seriously-flawed-first-person-narrator can make the most enthusiastic reader a bit jaded, but McCabe pulls this novel off with skill, so that we are given a not too sentimental tale of this horribly abused mentally deranged young man. What could have descended into gratuitous misery-lit instead rises above the raft of books written about a miserable Irish childhood. It’s very funny in places, nothing is played for pity, and the narrative voice of young Francie Brady is utterly plausible and often compelling.

Mr A

Magnus by George Mackay Brown

Magnus by George Mackay BrownThis is said to be George Mackay Brown’s “tour de force’, “his most poetic and innovative book”, and parts of it are good, but this novel of many different parts falls to pieces rather than neatly fitting together. This is supposed to be a “unique exploration of the eternal questions of guilt, goodness and personal sacrifice”, but instead the reader is more likely to be distracted by the sudden shifts in narrative. When the reader is asked to put together the disparate pieces of such a novel they will usually be up for it, but Mackay Brown loses the reader’s good will with protracted passages of abstract gibberish. This novel’s reputed “power and purity” didn’t register.


Mr A




Little Did We Know: The Origins of Literary Cliches

The Grand Hall of Platitudes, where originality goes to die (In actuality, the Osgoode Hall Library in Toronto via Flickr)

Any effective phrase can get burnt out on parody or overuse, but some tropes are so obvious that to use them at all is like announcing the arrival of a washed-up celebrity. Let’s probe the origins of some of the most famous (and perhaps best avoided) cliches lurking in our literary past:

“Little Did They Know”

The phrase “little did she/he/they know” has plenty of history. The question is, when did it start being used for cheap suspense? The inversion of subject and verb sounds stilted and melodramatic, so the obvious culprit would be 19th century fiction. But perhaps not everything is as it seems.

The phrase does appear in 19th century pieces, such as Ann Marsh-Caldwell’s Love and Duty: A Novel, but as only dramatic irony to refer to something we’re aware of but the protagonist isn’t, such as, “Little did he know what was passing in that young heart.” Occasionally the phrase appears in first person when a character is gloating or hiding something, such as in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Brigadier Gerard: “Little did they know I was on top of that very mound.” It is categorically not used for suspense, even in novels such as East Lynne by Ellen Wood,where cheap hooks and bad prose abound. Likewise, “unbeknownst” isn’t widely used in this way until the 20th century (despite being coined in Victorian times), and neither are equivalent phrases such as “little did he/she suspect.” It seems that for once, prose writing in the 19th century can throw off its collective top hat and cheer for a verdict of not guilty.

So when did the “little did they know” explosion take place? The epicentre appears to be American magazines of the 1930s to 1950s, especially those aimed at adventurously inclined men and boys. Flying Magazine, May 1931: “Little did he know that before he again placed his feet on Mother Earth he would have set a record.” The Rotarian, December 1931: “Little did he know that he was then on the verge of discovering a hidden treasure.” Boy’s Life, November 1939: “Little did he know that the worst was yet to be.” Motorboating magazine is the most shameless offender and uses “Little did they know” as a complete sentence in a 1942 article. The cliche crept into Life magazine in the ‘50s and from there became a major U.S. export.

“It was a Dark and Stormy Night”

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” This is the opening to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novelistic yawn-fest Paul Clifford. It has become the archetypical example of the excesses of purple prose — so much so that in 1982 San Jose State University Professor Scott E. Rice created the annual Bulwer-Lytton contest to see who could “compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

Yet Bulwer-Lytton’s work was met with praise and success in his time. He reputedly convinced Charles Dickens to change his vision of Great Expectations from an unhappy ending to something more crowd pleasing and coined the phrases “the mighty dollar” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

“Aesop and Priests” by Francis Barlow (via Wikipedia)

“Once Upon a Time”

It is hardly surprising that “once upon a time” has murky origins. The Oxford English Dictionary is sometimes cited as placing the inception around 1380 with The Canterbury Tales, but a quick glance will show that people don’t begin tales with “once upon a time” in Chaucer’s work.

A hint exists in the 1595 play The Old Wives Tale by George Peel, where the character Madge begins a tale with: “Once upon a time there was a king, or lord, or duke.” The play is a deliberate parody of romantic drama, and Madge’s aimless, wandering narratives are included to satirise a (presumably familiar) form of oral history, which suggests that “Once upon a time” was a well-known trope of storytelling in the 1500s.

A more concrete example of the phrase in its modern form comes in the 1694 work Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists: With Morals and Reflexions by Sir Roger L’Estrange. The tale of “The Hares and the Frogs” opens with “Once upon a time” and, perhaps more importantly, shows the trope being used to commence a short story for children. A pamphlet from around the same time begins a digression “Once upon a time (to use the old English style),” suggesting that writers in the 1690s already believed this to be a very old fashioned and quaint construction.

Samuel Goldwyn, lover of the oxymoron, once said, “Let’s have some new cliches.” There’s an honest sentiment behind that. No writer parachutes into the landscape of literature without any idea of their surroundings. Cliches aren’t just pervasive phrases; they are our point of reference when it comes to structuring a story, expressing thoughts and creating characters. The worst fiction might never go beyond widely used tropes, but the best fiction starts with an awareness of them.

George Dobbs is an MA graduate in creative writing who lives and works in the grim North of England. When he’s not at work on various writing projects, he enjoys cooking, long-distance running and avoiding the weather with his cat.

KEEP READING: More on Writing



4 Bad Side Effects of Reading Fiction According to the 19th Century


These days we’re desperately trying to get more people to read (“Please, read anything, here’s a YA novel by the Kardashians”) but in the 1800s, it was a different story. Books were supposed to teach people about science, philosophy and religion, not lead someone down an exciting path filled with action, drama and heartbreak. The thought that reading could be a joy instead of a chore and accessible to anyone with a dime scared many in positions of authority, because the works of Socrates didn’t stand a chance next to bestselling author May Agnes Fleming and The Unseen Bridegroom:Wedded for a Week.

To stem the popularity of novels, articles appeared in periodicals like The Mother’s Magazine and The Guardian and in books like Rev. J.T. Crane’s Popular Amusements, which recommended total abstinence from novel-reading. Why?

Fiction makes your mind flabby.
For decades, novels were considered “light” reading, because readers didn’t take away knowledge or moral instruction from the book, they just read for the fun of it. Reading novels didn’t, in theory, exercise the brain and so left the thought processes to deteriorate. Not only did these critics never try to deduce the culprit in a mystery novel, they probably hadn’t read Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1828 novelPenham. That high society-based book was basically a celebrity tell-all with the names changed, and became a hit when readers worked to figure out the real people behind the characters. Deductive reasoning is always fun when gossip is involved.

Stories can leave you dissatisfied with reality.
People are usually dissatisfied with reality anyway, that’s why they read. Then and now, readers think about characters and plotlines long after the book is closed, escaping personal drudgery for a while. But the real threat was readers would keep these fanciful ideas in their heads and quit being grateful just because they were alive. Soon they would want better lives with more adventure and romance and less back-breaking work and death. They would be more susceptible to day-dreaming, which “destroys mental balance,” or worse, forget about duty to church, family and work, and run off willy-nilly in search of happiness and self-discovery.

Novels stoke the emotions.
Romance novels were the main offenders here, because religious leaders and educators felt that these “domestic” novels simply worked the reader up too much. Young men and ladies might identify with the characters so strongly, they would become obsessed with the promise of love and seek out better relationships rather than just learn to settle for whomever was available. The thought that people wanted passion and excitement was frightening. If people started doing whatever they wanted, critics reasoned, chaos would rule and communities would break down. If this was true and they had Danielle Steel or Johanna Lindsey back then, the world would have likely exploded.

Sensational works can numb the soul to tragedy. 
Ask anyone who read The Fault in Our Stars or the last couple of Harry Potter books, and they’ll likely tell you there was plenty of sobbing and Kleenex involved. But critics were afraid that if people read too many gripping thrillers, crime stories or sad, tragic tales, it would shred their morals and make them into unfeeling cads with no sympathy for their fellow humans. They didn’t realize that reading these stories gave readers an outlet to feel wicked or sad with no strings attached, and made them more empathetic. Books like Hannah Webster Foster’s 1797 novel The Coquette, the tragic tale of an unmarried, pregnant girl and her child, actually did teach to the morals of the day but also made people think about the fully-drawn character and her circumstances.

While these side effects seem ridiculous to us now, at least E. S. Janes, who wrote the introduction to Popular Amusements in 1869, recognized the flow of time. “The fashionable follies of the last century are now deemed matters of wonder and derision,” he said, “just as the follies of our day may be laughed at a hundred years hence.”

Thank goodness they never saw the Internet.



2014′s 10 Best Works of Fiction So Far



Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

As we’ve said before, Oyeyemi might be made of magic. This retelling ofSnow White, which has far more to do with race in America than it does with a beautiful princess living with seven dwarves, proved that she possesses a unique imagination, is a great storyteller, and is a writer operating on a different level.


Every Day Is for the Thief, Teju Cole

We’ve been waiting anxiously for a new book by Teju Cole since 2011′sOpen City, and this small novel — originally published in Nigeria in 2007 — delivered. The story of a young Nigerian man visiting his home after a period of living in America, it paints an unforgettable portrait of Lagos through the eyes of Cole’s narrator that’s worth reading more than once.


Praying Drunk, Kyle Minor

A collection that pretty much smacked the face of everybody who read it, Kyle Minor’s astonishing book of short stories features plenty of God and death, but forces readers to look past the darkness for just a little beam of light.



The UnAmericans, Molly Antopol

In her debut collection, Molly Antopol tells the stories of Jews of the Old World and Jews of the New World, but in a way that everybody — whether you’re part of the Tribe or not — can relate to. In doing so, Antopol has us wondering what she’ll tackle next.


An Untamed State, Roxane Gay

Privilege, hardship, and survival all come into play in Roxane Gay’s debut novel. But what defines her storytelling is compassion — something we could use a lot more of in this world.


The Last Illusion, Porochista Khakpour

In this novel that sometimes feels like it’s dancing close to the line between fable and magical realism, Khakpour’s greatest trick is how often she makes the reader want to simultaneously laugh and cry.



Inside Madeleine, Paula Bomer

A complex and often challenging collection that should rightfully place Paula Bomer at the head of the class of young writers you can’t ignore.


Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis

Few literary events are more exciting than a new Lydia Davis book. Here, yet again, she shows off how she crafts a short story like nobody else.


Shovel Ready, Adam Sternbergh

With Spademan, Sternbergh gives us a new name to add to the list of great dystopian fiction characters. Smart, darkly humorous, and highly enjoyable, Shovel Ready is a post-apocalyptic tale that calls to mind 1980s cyberpunk and classic noir.



American Innovations, Rivka Galchen

We knew Galchen had to be working on something in the years sinceAtmospheric Disturbances, her 2008 debut novel. What she gave us with this collection was a little book full of tiny wonders.