Ironically, such metaphors are often evocative, descriptive and sometimes even beautiful. But what makes them a problem is the fact that they’re victims of their own success and have become so overused as to be meaningless.
A good metaphor makes the reader think; forces her to picture the image you’ve described. They’re a classic show-don't-tell. Clichés on the other hand are tell-don’t-show. Because the reader has heard this phrase so often, she takes the shortcut to the realisation of what you mean. But this stops her being engaged in the story.
Think of these two phrases, and I suggest you’ll realise they both are very vivid images:
- Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and
- Gilding the lily.
But because they’ve both been used so often, no matter how evocative they are, they fall firmly into the category of clichés, and should be avoided. It’s challenging for you, as the writer, to think of new ways to describe things. But that’s part of the fun of it! And frankly, it’s part of the responsibility of it. Using clichés is just lazy writing.
So, let’s think how we might rephrase these. (As I’m writing this, I have no idea. I’m going to have to brainstorm now - which is apt, because that’s what we do as writers in real life all the time.)
Let’s think …
For the first one, what are we trying to say? The meaning of that cliché is that discretion is the better part of valour (another cliché!). Hmm … maybe Safety first, heroics second. I’m not thrilled with it, and in real life I’d play around with it a bit more, but it suffices to give you the idea.
For the second one we could say maybe, Over-icing the cake. I definitely don’t like that, because it’s too close to the cliché of an added bonus being the icing on the cake. (Frosting, in American-English.) So I need to work more on that.
Back to the drawing board. (Another cliché! They’re all around, you know, the sneaky little so-and-sos, ready to infiltrate our writing at any time.) The phrase gilding the lily means to add artificial unneeded beauty to something which is naturally beautiful. So … what about Painting over perfection? I quite like that actually. It has the advantage that it has a nice ring to it too, with the two p sounds. It’s not as evocative as gilding the lily, but at least it’s new and original.
As you rewrite your clichés, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of using purple prose. It’s a fine line, I know, but one that’s worth striving for.
There are occasions to use clichés, however.
- The first is when you’re writing your first draft. I always say is that the first draft is about what you say, rather than how you say it. So when you’re busy imagining situations and dialogue and so on, it’s too much to expect that you will come up with perfectly fresh phrases at the same time. Use the cliché, and replace it with something more creative in subsequent drafts.
- The second is when you’re putting a new slant on a cliché. So, our examples above could be amended to:
- [Character’s name] rushes in where even fools fear to tread, and
- Putting make-up on [Character’s name] is a bit like gilding the acorn. (If, say, the character wasn’t terribly attractive.)
- The third time to use clichés, albeit sparingly, is in dialogue. Characters would use clichés in speech just as we ourselves do. It would just look so pretentious for characters to use an elegant turn of phrase - unless the character was deliberately being clever, or they spoke like that anyway.
How do you know what’s a cliché anyway?
There’s no absolute list - maybe clichés are in the eye of the beholder (another cliché!). One trick is to ask yourself - if you only provided the first half of the phrase, would the reader be able to finish it? If so, it’s a cliché. So, if I said, “Clichés are in the eye of the -”, I bet you’d be able to fill in the word ‘beholder’.
As I describe in How many plots are there anyway? there are only a finite number of plots. We are all telling the same few stories.
But having said that we need to put a new slant on them, lest they become cliché situations. For example, the middle-aged husband leaving his wife for a younger woman, and her journey to get her life back has become a cliché.
I’m not saying you can’t do it, but you’re putting the odds against you. If you have a cliché situation, you’re going to have to have really engaging characters, dialogue, setting etc, to compensate. Whereas what you want is to have really engaging character, dialogue and setting and a fresh story.
In her famous slushkiller article list for reasons for rejecting manuscripts editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden gives as one of her reasons: “The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.”
So you need to be innovative. Don't have predictable plot-turns. Surprise your readers.
- As mentioned above, don't have a story about a middle-aged man leaving his wife for a younger woman and her journey to get her life back.
- Don't have the heroine going alone into the spooky attic.
- Don't have the psychic foretelling exactly what's going to happen.
(Or, again as mentioned above, if you do, make sure the rest of the story compensates. Or put a good twist on it.)
So, what do you do instead? I don't know. That's something for you to figure out. And that's the fun and the challenge of writing. Each of us will come up with their own original solution - and that's what makes our work special.
Consider this for an example, though: One of the lovely things about the story Shrek was that it turned the cliché on its head - instead of the kiss turning Shrek into a handsome prince, Fiona elected that he stay as an ogre, and she remain an ogre too.
Check out the section about creativity for ideas on how to come up with non-cliché situations which still meet your genre conventions.