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shana galen

The Fine Art of Figurative Language or Cliché

Avoid it Like the Plague

It's raining cats and dogs.
He's as blind as a bat.
It hit me like a bolt of lightning.

Clichés. Most writers know to avoid them. We vow that none of those trite phrases will ever mar one of our vaunted pages. Then we have a day, or a string of them, when it seems our muse is vacationing in the Bahamas without us. Suddenly, the forbidden apple seems oh so ripe and shiny. I know I've felt the insidious lure of the cliché during a few of those dark hours, and I have a feeling I'm not alone. Though we may be proficient—even talented—writers, not all of us are born with the innate ability to use figurative language well. Yet, if we are to be effective in our chosen craft, employing apt and original figurative devices is a skill we must master.

Figurative language is a broad category, but the most common forms are the metaphor and simile. Briefly, both similes and metaphors are devices used to make a comparison between two seemingly unlike things. A simile uses the words "like," "as," or "than" and makes a direct comparison.

Simile: The teacher marched to the front of the classroom like a soldier ready for battle.

Metaphors are subtler than similes in their comparison. A metaphor states that one thing is another.

Metaphor: The teacher marched to the front of the classroom, a soldier ready for battle.

Writers use similes and metaphors because an effective comparison can make a description of a scene or character vivid and real to the reader. These forms of figurative language give the reader a jumping off point of sorts. The reader who sees the above example of the teacher in the classroom not only understands that the teacher is having a difficult time with the class but that the instructor is dealing with the problem using a military-type approach. Hopefully, the use of the figurative language has even created a mental picture of the teacher in the reader's mind.

A successful simile or metaphor will resonate with a reader, whether she notes its use or not. However, a mixed metaphor, a cliché, or a metaphor/simile that confuses can jar the reader out of the story. These three troublesome areas are pitfalls writers must all avoid.

Mixed metaphors are a common problem. A mixed metaphor, quite simply, mixes up the comparison the author is trying to achieve.

Mixed metaphor: She was a squirming fish caught in his web.

This metaphor fails to create an effective comparison. Instead, it mixes up an image of fishing with a reference to a spider's web. The problem can be easily corrected if the author adheres to one image in the comparison.

Corrected: She was a squirming fish caught at the end of a short pole.

Corrected: She was a struggling fly trapped in his silken web.

These metaphors take the comparison to its logical conclusion.

Another hazard for writers of figurative language—especially when our muse is ignoring us—is the tendency to rely on cliché rather than originality. Sometimes we don't even realize we're using a cliché because the phrase has become so much a part of our culture. "Surfing the Internet" is a good example. But just because a phrase is relatively new doesn't mean it's not already cliché. Any phrase that's been overused is stale and should be avoided in our writing.

Unfortunately when inspiration is on strike, it may begin to seem that every unique idea or novel phrase has already been used. How can we find original comparisons for our similes and metaphors? In her novel Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, Rebecca McClanahan advises writers to find their own "personal constellation" of images and to build from these. The idea is that each of us has a wealth of experiences we draw upon in our writing. These are the events that have most affected our lives, and often in our stories we find ourselves returning to certain themes that grow out of these experiences. We might also observe that we tend to be drawn to particular images and ideas. These are our "personal constellations"—the occurrences that populate our little corner of the galaxy. McClanahan suggests that a writer looking for fresh images study her writing, noting the images, phrases, and words that recur. Once a writer finds the images that resonate most with her, she can begin to develop and extend them. If the images truly grow out of our own "personal constellation," they are far less likely to be stale or clichéd.

One caution, though. The last pitfall of figurative language is often a direct result of a writer trying so hard to find an original simile or metaphor that her comparison confuses and thus jars the reader out of the story.

Jarring: They stood together under the stars that speckled the velvet sky like chicken pox dot the face of a child.

This description is lovely and romantic at first but leaves the reader thinking of chicken pox—not a very romantic condition! The reader is confused as to the writer's intent and probably thrust out of the mood of the scene and perhaps the entire story. Again, the writer's goal is to use original comparisons but only those that will enhance the story and, hopefully, resonate with the reader and enrich her experience.

There's no denying that figurative language infuses our writing with richness and vibrancy, but it should be used sparingly and effectively. After all, I've yet to hear a reader criticize a writer for not using enough similes and metaphors, but use a bad one and she may drop your book like a hot potato!

Works Cited: McClanahan, Rebecca. Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. Writer's Digest Books: Cincinnati. 1999.

© Shana Galen


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