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What to do with cliched metaphors?

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Example from my own writing:

"Please take care of yourself," she replied. "Health is the most important thing in life, remember that."

"I know, Mom." I had already lost count of the number of times she had repeated that. "But I don't know, let's say you do your best to stay healthy: jog every day, eat veggies, drink lots of water, avoid cigarettes and alcohol. Then one day you die in a car accident. Wouldn't it be a big waste? Like building a sand castle just to watch the waves come along and wash it away?"

"What's your point?"

"That maybe there's something more to life than health. Something that has nothing to do with the body."

She said, "Darling, you sure you're all right?"

Talking to my mom suddenly made me sad. She had good intentions, I knew that. However, sometimes it felt as if we spoke different languages.

So, that's a cliched metaphor. And here's the problem: it's the perfect one for the passage. Still, it bother's me that I'm using a cliche. So I tried the following:

1) Using a synonym:

However, sometimes it felt as if we spoke different dialects.

2) Using another metaphor:

However, sometimes it felt as if we were standing in opposite shores, shouting to each other.

But I don't know. I'm not sure if I'm doing the right thing.

What should I do with cliched metaphors? Maybe just remove them?

Why should this post be closed?

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/18082. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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9 answers

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See if you can add a twist. One time Harlan Ellison wrote:

She looked like a million bucks.

Realizing what a horrible cliche that was, he changed it:

She looked like a million bucks, tax free.

For a lame example (that twists the cliche by adding another one):

It sometimes felt as if we spoke different languages. British English and American English.

ETA: This idea is useful sometimes. Lauren Ipsum's idea is useful all the time. Y'all should go upvote that one.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/18085. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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I think this all depends on how common the metaphor is.

Some metaphors are so common that speakers don't recognize them as metaphors any longer, and replacing them is unnecessary.

A very common metaphor is when you say that someone breaches a subject, meaning that this person gathers all their courage and addresses what everyone has been avoiding to talk about. This metaphor has become a standing phrase, and avoiding it would lead to ridiculously cumbersome paraphrasing.

Other metaphors are so rare that readers find them novel and poetic.

What you are talking about here is the middle ground, those metaphors that everyone knows but that have not yet (or will never) become irreplacable standard expressions.

The question is, wether or not your example actually falls in this middle category of cheap clichés.

I think not.

While the phrase may be of middle commonality, the idea of two groups of people speaking different languages, comming from different planets or belonging to different species, is so common and widespread as to be almost irreplacable by any other view. Men and women, teens and their parents, workers and academics, foreigners and natives – almost all conflicts between members of clearly recognizable groups have been experienced and described in these or similar terms, because the inablity to understand the other person is a common human experience (and a fact that cannot be overcome, in my opinion), and because we seem to be unable to perceive the individuality of these misunderstandings and the persons involved in them but invariable see them as representatives of their respective categories. That is, even if the conflict between this one son and his father is very much unique, and the problem is not that they don't understand each other, we see a son and a father and that they live in different worlds. Their opposition appears natural and God-given to us.

And because this is such a universal perspective, any of the common metaphors expressing it are not cliché at all, but the common and normal and unremarkable descriptions of a basic "truth".

If you hadn't pointed that metaphor out to me, I wouldn't have noticed it.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/18086. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Creating original similes and metaphors is incredibly difficult. When teaching students I find that similes are easier than metaphors. It is possible to write similes and then convert them to metaphors.

One way to write similes is to think of an object. Think of a characteristic it has in common with your original object and then try to write a simile. For example, if the original object is an apple and the object you want to compare it with is a CD you might want to focus on the way it shines. The result: The apple was so shiny it reflected the light like a CD in the sunshine. (I just made this up as I was writing, but the principle holds.)

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/18087. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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I had a poetry teacher who talked about "tired language," referring to clichés like this.

Take your original metaphor apart and break it down to the real, concrete, non-representative ideas. Are Eri and Mom so far apart that not one single thought is shared between them? Are they speaking as though they are watching two different TV shows, or experienced two different days at work? Are they looking at a house from in the sun and in the shade? Is the dress white and gold or blue and black? and so on.

Once you get to the genuine thought, you can construct a new phrase or metaphor to express it.

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As is typical with tired language and cliches, the main problem here is not simply that the phrase is overly familiar, but that it is inappropriate to the scene. This is not a scene in which two people fail to take each other's meaning, despite speaking the same language. Mother and daughter understand each other perfectly. They simply don't agree. It is not a difference in understanding, but a difference in values. Each knows perfectly well what the other is saying. They simply have different views on the importance of health vs experience.

So the first and foremost problem is not that the words are a cliche, but that they are the wrong cliche.

In Politics and the English Language, Orwell talks about the tendency to think in stock phrases, and to write by stringing these stock phrases together. The problem with this in not merely the use of tired phrases, it is that it results in imprecise thought and expression. The writer ends up saying, and perhaps even thinking, something less precise than is called for.

Think through the problem itself, Orwell advised, and then compose the most apt words to express the thought. That may indeed bring you back to familiar phrases and familiar metaphors (or similes, which is what you have in this case) but if it does so, it will be because they are the most apt words to express your meaning, and as such they will not offend the ear.

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Depending on the style of what you're writing, sometimes it can be good to highlight the cliché. Maybe pointing out the cliché of what she is saying "Mother that's such a cliché" then ending with "I guess its my turn for clichés then" (that's awful! but you get the point hopefully)

Or move the cliché into her speech, and then end with " she sometimes spoke in clichés, but her intentions were good, and maybe we do speak in different languages..."

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/18084. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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I struggle with this as well and have two approaches the help get out of the rut of tired language:

  1. Take the advice the Lauren Ipsum discussed earlier. It works very well.
  2. Cut out tired language, describe what's happening without flair and without requirement for catchy phrasing, and let the strength of the story telling come from the directness of your narrative. Solid narrative voices almost necessarily have a unique perspective that draw people in and therefore could be more powerful for the reader than the original tired language.

If it doesn't feel right, cut it out or rewrite it. It's your voice that your audience wants to read anyway, not a collection of rehashed phrases.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/18092. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Alexander: I think you don't like the phrase because it doesn't really fit the situation. Your two characters aren't having a problem understanding each other, which is what the mental image of two people speaking different languages conjures; their problem is a stubborn unwillingness to cede to the other opinion.

I draw from my personal experience with my father when I offer you this version: I sometimes feel we're stuck in an endless debate, with no arbiter to declare a winner.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/18102. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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If you use a canned phrase or a well-known simile, such as "like speaking different languages", then you're evoking for a reader a situation that they are familiar with, and appealing to their own understanding of such situations that they've described (or seen described) in those terms.

It's not always a bad thing, but it's also not putting any novel ideas in the mouth of your narrator. In effect it's routine presentation of information about the scene and his reaction to it. If that's what you want to do, then do it, but if it's not what you want to do then do something different. Don't try to do the same routine thing in unexpected language.

Tweaking the known phrase by substituting "dialect" for "language" does nothing for you. At best the reader doesn't notice, at worst they wonder why you didn't just say the usual thing. Since there's no good reason, it's just less of an exaggeration if taken literally, they conclude that you're stretching your vocabulary to no purpose.

Changing the metaphor allows your narrator to express a different, and less familiar, thought. OK, so shouting from different shores isn't completely original either, but if what you want is to present a different perspective on a well-known situation (in this case one of failure to communicate and by extension failure to connect) then there's no shortcut to it, you have to actually come up with a fresh thought on the subject!

If you just want to communicate the facts on the ground, but you feel that the usual idiom is clichéed, then go more literal rather than reaching for a different metaphor: "It felt as if she could never understand me".

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/18104. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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