Along with “Show, don’t tell,” the other writerly maxim most commonly batted about is to avoid the use of clichés. Nothing marks a novice writer (or one who isn’t really trying or not paying attention) more than sentences filled with common word phrasing and over-used metaphors. You know, things such as “At the end of the day,” or “eyes like pools,” “cheeks as red as roses.”
If the point of writing, especially creative writing, is to create a unique and memorable experience for the reader, commonness of phrase and novelty of metaphor would seem to be the enemy. As Alice Laplante says in The Making of a Story, “A good metaphor gives us a little shock: it stretches our imagination by forcing us to see something in a new light, yet it also immediately convinces us that it is true.” She goes on about clichés: [T]here is the imaginative effort required to make that leap from the literal to the metaphorical, without…the surprise, the delight of a fresh comparison that illuminates.”
Compare the worn “his heart felt like it would burst” or “she cackled like a hen” to “clouds like great gray brains” (Denis Johnson) or a wiry old man whom life had “beaten into the shape of a sickle” (Chigozie Obioma). The latter two are vivid and surprising (while also deployed to develop the story’s plot, characters, subtext, and tone — as should every single word should in a novel or story, but that’s a separate essay.)
Janet Burroway in her classic Writing Fiction goes even further, condemning the cliché as “shorthand for emotions without the felt force of those emotions.” This is particularly egregious in creative writing, which should attempt to generate emotions in the reader. As she says, “Anytime you as a writer record an emotion without convincing us to feel that emotion, you introduce a fatal distance between author and reader.” In other words, the writer describes a character as “hawk-eyed with thighs like hams” and the reader yawns.
I’m not going to disagree with either Laplante or Burroway. Every writer should read their books on writing craft. However, to employ a phrase so clichéd it has moved to the status of a dead metaphor: All rules are meant to be broken. Telling is employed often and profitably in writing. Clichés can be as well. Knowing how and when is the trick.
Consider the following paragraph from the story “Bottles of Beaujolais” by David Wong Louie from his collection The Pangs of Love. (It won the 1991 Los Angeles Times award for first fiction and the story “Displacement” from the same volume appeared in Best American Short Stories 1989.) The narrator works in a Japanese restaurant and is an aspiring sushi chef. As the story opens, however, he’s only ever been allowed to perform the most menial of tasks. One night after the restaurant has closed, a woman he’s infatuated with stops in and they get to talking over a couple bottles of wine. Then:
I went behind the sashimi bar to prepare a snack for us. I selected a long shiny knife from Mr. Tanaka’s impressive collection. I was surprised by how light it felt in my hand. I removed a block of yellowfin from the refrigerated case and started cutting the fish into crude cubes. The steel seemed to melt through the flesh. At first, I was tentative in my approach to the fish, but soon, caught up in the sensuality of slicing, in the thrill of moving through flesh, I was imitating the sashimi master’s speedy hands, approximating his flashy blade act. Where was the mystery of his art? It was mine already. I looked over at Luna and smiled while my busy hands whittled away at the shrinking hunk of fish. I imagined how I might one day audition for Mr. Tanaka, with Luna there for inspiration, and dazzle him with my newfound skills. I glanced down to admire my handiwork. My hand was a bloody mess.
That final sentence. It’s familiar. It’s not a fresh comparison. A ho-hum metaphor, it certainly doesn’t give the reader a specific and particular image. Why, it’s a cliché!
Yet the sentence works. If anything, it’s perfect for that moment.
There are a few reasons. First, the narrator’s tone in the story is familiar and colloquial, slightly comical and self-deferential. He’s not one to use a poetic phrase after realizing he’s grievously wounded himself. “My hand was a bloody mess,” maintains his voice.
The cliché also conveys the meaning of the sentence. Suddenly noticing you’ve cut your hand open with a Ginsu knife would be, I imagine, quite a shock. Especially, if a moment before you were soaring on the heights of rhapsodic love, An inventive metaphor here wouldn’t bring the reader to a hard stop. No hard stop, no readerly identification with the narrator.
A few sentences later, once the narrator is in a more reflective mood, the blood is described as “red pearls of trouble.” A nice phrase that shows us the welling blood and also hints at where this relationship might be headed. But what if Louie, following the advice about cliché, had instead ended the paragraph with that image instead of “a bloody mess”? I think the reader might find themselves distracted from the moment, wondering about the metaphor’s deeper meaning, rather than experiencing the comical full-stop that Louie intended.
So, just as not all showing is bad, not all cliché is bad. Effective use of cliché simply requires that the writer pay attention to tone and voice.
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A post-script. Cliché is only to be avoided in narrative. Having a person speak in cliché is perfectly acceptable and sometimes a good way to develop character.