Writers in the Storm

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April 10, 2023

Mundane to Magical: Using Clichés, Metaphors, and Similes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

magical storytelling - girl reading a book with a fish looking over her shoulder in a library

World building is one of my favorite aspects of writing science fiction and fantasy. It’s a chance to open up the creative floodgates and let the imagination run wild. But world building is more than just the physical and descriptive details of a place. The culture, history, and language of a group of people contribute to what life is like in that world.

This history and culture is where those clichés, metaphors, and similes come from.

Consider how even within the United States terms and phrases differ. If you’re from the Midwest, you probably order a pop with lunch, but on the East and West Coasts it’s a soda, and in many southern states, it’s a coke (regardless of the type of soda it is). You can often tell where someone is from by the words and cliches they use.

So how can you use these devices to bring your world to life?

The key is to be intentional. Don't just throw in a cliché or a metaphor because it sounds good. Think about why you're using it and what effect you want it to have on your reader. Is it helping to create a more vivid image of your world? Is it revealing something about your characters or their emotions? Is it adding depth and complexity to your story?

For example, you could write:

  • The city was a labyrinth.
  • The air clung to me like a wet towel.
  • "Actions speak louder than words," he said, shaking his head at my gaff.

But look what happens if you added a hint of the world and the characters who live in that world:

  • The city was a labyrinth of twisting streets and paths that led to trouble.
  • The air around the old biddies clung to me like a towel dipped in Chanel #5.
  • "Actions speak louder than words," he said, “and you just shouted at the whole room.”

These take a basic phrase and turn it into something more. The city has an air of danger now, we get a stronger sense of what the air feels and smells like, and the cliché adds a bit of character voice.

Here are some tips to make the most of your clichés, metaphors, and similes:

Choose your clichés wisely.

Although clichés get a bad rap, they can serve a valuable purpose. They’re cultural shorthand that can suggest the larger world a character lives in. Using “common” phrases and clichés in your writing misses an opportunity to flesh out your story world—even if that world is New York City. How often have you seen a blanket of snow, a head spinning with ideas, or a smile as bright as the sun? These mean nothing to readers because they’re so general. 

But clichés are effective when used in the right context. For example, if you’re writing a scene where a character is trying to comfort a friend who has just made a terrible mistake, saying, “You can’t change the past” might be appropriate. But you might also brainstorm ways you can evoke that concept in a way that better fits your world.

For example, in my Healing Wars trilogy, my protagonist says, “What’s done is done,” and her sister finishes it with “And I can’t change it none,” suggesting this is a common cliché in their world. It carries the same vibe as “you can’t change the past,” but in a fresh way.

Use metaphors and similes to create vivid descriptions.

Metaphors and similes are useful tools for creating sensory descriptions that help readers imagine what your world looks, sounds, smells, and feels like. For example, “the wind whispered through the trees like a lover’s sigh” creates a vivid image of the sound of the wind blowing through the leaves.

I once wrote a pirate character who'd spent his life at sea. When he referenced things, he used sea metaphors or similes, because that’s the world he existed in. People went “white as a sail,” or something was “hard as a north wind.” It reinforced who he was and how he saw the world around him.

This applies even in the real world. Maybe your software developer compares things to coding, or the teacher makes math metaphors. The Iowa farm girl might pepper her speech with colloquialisms. Every culture and group has their own “language” and how they communicate, and the phrases everyone knows. “Let’s see if this dog is gonna hunt,” is clear for those in Arkansas, but a New Yorker might be lost as to its meaning.

While you don't want to dip into purple prose trying to "write fancy," think about how your character would use a metaphor or simile and how that fits into your story and world. What metaphors show an aspect of your world? How would your character describe the world around them?

Make sure your comparisons are accurate.

An inaccurate or nonsensical comparison can pull readers out of the story and undermine the effectiveness of your scene. For example, comparing a playful person’s smile to a “crocodile’s grin” is an interesting image, but it’s not an accurate comparison because crocodiles are usually associated with aggression and danger. It sends the wrong message to readers.

Also consider the tone and style of your story. For example, if you're writing a gritty crime drama, using a lot of colorful, literary-style metaphors and similes might feel out of place. If you're writing a humorous tale, creative and unexpected comparisons might add to the overall tone of the story.

Mix them up for the most impact.

Too much of anything is usually bad, so be wary of overusing any particular device. Too many clichés can feel stale and unoriginal. Too many metaphors or similes can feel overwritten or even pretentious. Mix all three into your story where they feel the most natural.

You can even use them to show the characters’ individual voices. Maybe one character frequently uses clichés because they think it makes them sound smart. Another might compare things using similes on a regular basis. The narrator or point of view character might fill their internalization with metaphors.

By choosing the right clichés, metaphors, and similes, you can give readers a deeper understanding of your characters' personalities, emotions, and perspectives, which helps illustrate your world.

Remember to use them sparingly and strategically, and always be intentional about the effect you want them to have on your reader.

If a cliché, metaphor, or simile helps create a more vivid image or reveal character, then it's serving its purpose. But if it's just a gimmick or distraction, then it's better to leave it out.

How do you feel about clichés, metaphors, and similes? Do they add to a story or just muck it up?

* * * * * *

About Janice

Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.

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Top image by Deleyna via Midjourney

28 comments on “Mundane to Magical: Using Clichés, Metaphors, and Similes”

    1. We LOVE having you here, Janice! You always make me think with your posts, and I always re-write something troublesome and make it better after I've read your articles. (So thanks bunches!)

  1. I try to be observant in daily life, and out in nature, and let metaphors and similes for what I see and hear suggest themselves to me, and store them away for later use.

    1. What a great idea. I do that with lines I hear, but haven't done it with anything else.

  2. I'm probably odd person out here, but I don't care for them unless they're used VERY sparingly, and done well. Simple words give me the image, and comparisons just add something else to think about. So much depends on the voice of the character, and since I write in Deep POV, if my characters aren't going to be seeing/thinking that way, they don't work. When I try to come up with what I think are passable descriptions using them, my editor normally cuts them as not fitting.
    Not to say they're not useful when done well, which apparently is a skill I lack.

    1. That is the fine line to walk, and it's really easy to overdo it. That's why I like finding details and comparisons that for the character and their world. I find it flows better and is less obvious.

      I also do deep POV, which makes that easier. If it's not something they'd say or notice, I don't use it. For me, it's another extension of the character voice.

  3. Interesting and valid, as long as not overused. I tend to avoid using standard cliches, but have had a long ongoing affair with memes in my stories.

    By all means, I agree with updating cliches to fit the particular world you’ve built. I like, where possible, also updating common terms to fit your story world. My current WIP is speculative fiction set in the near future, so I play (lightly) with terms we currently use-e.g., videos become just ‘vids’ and cellphones become simply ‘coms.’

    1. Like everything else, you have to find the right balance for your story. I use vids as well in my SF. 🙂 coming up with terms is half the fun of world building!

  4. Cliches are an absolute necessity in dialog. Some rules are different in dialog. People do not speak with he burden of rules though it is the art of a reader to both; make it readable while sounding authentic. Cliches can do wonders for creating a character sound unique, especially bad ones.

    1. Well said. People use clichés and bad grammar and all the "bad" writing, and they'd sound unnatural if we didn't write our dialogue that way. The trick is to sound natural and still make it readable.

    1. another tactic, as long as not overused, is the bumbling cliche. The character gets it wrong. works great in rom-com.

  5. I never met a metaphor that didn’t amaze me. As a metaphor can come across as cliche, makes it even more challenging. Thanks for sharing your insights.

    1. You're welcome! They're fun to write, and a good one can indeed stick with you a long time 🙂

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