Friday, October 23, 2015

When Does a Metaphor Become a Metaphor Cliche?

A popular post from April 2012

By Josi S. Kilpack

I've heard it said that metaphor cliches are victims of their own success, that because they are SO good at what they do, they are bad. Make's sense, right? Yeah, it took me a minute too, so I'm going to try my best to explain it.

A metaphor is the epitome of show don't tell or figurative writing--it is using words (which typically 'tell) to 'show' something, often combining something commonly understood to whatever it is the writer wants to describe. For example instead of saying bright yellow coat you say "sunshine yellow coat" or instead of saying excruciatingly thin you say "spaghetti-noodle thin." You're using the commonality of one thing to 'show' the details of something else. You are saying something IS something else--the coat IS yellow, the girl IS thin. Some more complex metaphors are things like "She was laughter and sunshine," or "the night is thick with hatred."

A simile is similar (ha, punny) to a metaphor except that it uses "like" or "as" within it's description. So it might be "As yellow as sunshine" or "thin like a spaghetti noodle". You get a similar 'show', but you use 'like' or 'as' to help you make the point. You are saying something is MUCH LIKE something else. They can get complex as well, for instance "She made me feel as light as laughter and as bright as sunshine" or "the feeling of hatred was as thick as peanut butter" Now, there are some exceptions to the 'like/as' factor of similes, but I'm not going to get into that because I don't really get it. For me, understanding that if I use "like" or "as" in a comparison description, it's a simile.

Both metaphors and similes are wonderful things in fiction--they allow us to manipulate words and make them into pictures. They make our stories visual, which means we're engaging multiple senses and the more senses you can engage, the more real your story feels. So, we shall all agree that metaphors and similes are wonderful things.

Now that we are in agreement, let us move on like a Vegas bride the morning after, shall we?

A metaphor cliche, then, is a really, really good metaphor or simile that people like so much they have used it to death and therefore we no longer even think about what it means. For example "rail thin" when you hear that, what do you think about? Do you actually think about the rail of a chair, which is where the description came from? No, you just think thin. How about "Icing on the cake", for me, I just think of a frosted cake. What it actually means is adding something good to something that's already wonderful, but it's used so often that we kind of skim over it which means we don't end up with the visual after all which then defeats the purpose of having used the metaphor or simile.

It can be very difficult to see our own metaphor cliches. Typically, this isn't something you worry about too much in your first draft, but when you go back to your revision, be sure to take the time to note the metaphors and similes you've used and make sure they are doing their job, instead of lounging in the back of the room flirting with your muse and resting on their laurels of overuse. They continue to work well in dialogue, however, because we talk in cliches all the time.

A fun thing to do when you do in fact encounter these cliches, is to think of ways you can re-invent them. For instance, instead of "Fog as thick as pea soup" consider "Fog as thick as milk left on the counter for three days" or "Fog as thick as pond scum" or "Fog as thick as Aunt Harriet's  cold cream that hadn't worked as well as she'd hoped it would." Instead of "Thinking outside the box" you go with "Thinking outside the kiddie pool" or "Thinking outside the Congressional Hearing". Changing up a cliche is a fun play on the familiar and makes you look very clever.

So, in summary, we want our words to be OUR words, and we do that by holding them up to the light  and looking at them from every angle until we are content to put our name on it and claim it as our own.

And, although this post is about metaphor cliches, there are all kinds of other cliches--word choices we don't even think of the meaning of. Many of them are peppered throughout this post, but since I was focusing on metaphor cliches, I'm going to let them slide, just this once. :-)

Happy Writing!


Anita said...

I've been known to use a metaphor cliche or two. :) As I think of what you've written, I realize that many stem from the fact that I'm over 50 years old and that these phrases are so embedded in my brain. Thank you for a good reminder to "freshen up" my cliches. :)

antares said...


"She was laughter and sunshine"

"the night is thick with hatred"

Great lines, those.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Great stuff here. But you also have to be careful that you don't just move out of the move but into another dimension. I've seen some horrible (rather than clever/creative) metaphors and similes.

"like a Vegas bride the morning after"