A Cliché Simile Is a Bad Simile

One of the many things I fairly harp on when I teach at writers conferences (full disclosure: I’m a fair harper) is the need to eliminate clichés from your writing. Seriously, they’re old hat. 

One of the places clichés seem to creep in most often is in similes and metaphors. (Quick refresher: a simile is a figure of speech comparing two things, usually using “like” or “as,” while a metaphor is a comparison that says one thing is another.)

So, “she laughed like a hyena” is a simile. While “his face was a stone wall” is a metaphor. Alas, both of those examples are cliché.

Using a cliché simile or metaphor in your writing says all the wrong things about you. It says you’re as unimaginative as a rock. It says you’re a sloth. See what I mean?

Every time you use a cliché, you miss a golden opportunity to help your reader see, to enliven your poetry or prose with energy, to make a scene vivid or a character distinct.

I was reminded of this recently when reading Leif Enger’s novel, Virgil Wander. The whole thing is wonderfully written, but I was delighted by one phrase in particular. (As a rule, a sentence that “sticks out” in a novel, even because it’s wonderful, is counter-productive in a story, because it draws attention to the words and not to the character or action being depicted. But sometimes—especially when someone as insightful and erudite as me is reading—it’s excusable.) In the scene, Enger describes a fifteen-year-old girl in these words:

Ellen was working things through. One week she’d show up plain as a hymnal, eyes cast down and her hair yanked back; the next she arrived in glitter and paint, short and bright as a puffin.

“Plain as a hymnal.” “Short and bright as a puffin.” So vivid. Perfect. And each is, I believe, the first time I’ve ever read or heard such comparisons.

Of course, we must all be careful not to distract the reader with an overwrought simile or metaphor. Or, worse, prompt a giggle with a ridiculous attempt—like one of my favorites: “The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.” Or “He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.” If you find yourself writing something like that, dial it back. Take a deep breath. Try again.

Sure, it can be hard, as most writing can. But it’s the hard that makes it great (nod to Jimmy Doogan in A League of Their Own). And sharp similes and metaphors, used judiciously, can make your writing sing like a bird. No, like an angel. Wait. No, like a soprano at the Met.

Give me a little more time. Or help me out in the comments.

29 Responses to A Cliché Simile Is a Bad Simile

  1. Warren February 24, 2021 at 4:33 am #

    Fall like a lead balloon…

  2. Noraspinaio February 24, 2021 at 5:17 am #

    Like butter on cornbread.

    • Sandra February 24, 2021 at 7:46 am #

      Ah! Now you’re talking!

  3. Connie February 24, 2021 at 5:24 am #

    Ah, so I can’t say “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” … back to the editing table. Gee, thanks Bob.😄

    • Bob Hostetler February 24, 2021 at 10:08 am #

      If the shoe fits, Connie…

  4. Robin February 24, 2021 at 5:28 am #

    Your guidance is always spot-on. Like white on rice … like a duck chasing a June bug … like … oh, you get the point.

  5. DAMON J GRAY February 24, 2021 at 6:10 am #

    As always Bobert, beautifully written. You made that blog posting sing like a finely tuned engine.

  6. Roberta Sarver February 24, 2021 at 6:16 am #

    Your posts are always so right on, just what the doctor ordered, my cup of tea, But remember, it’s not over till the fat lady sings the high note. (Oops, hope I don’t get canned for that last statement.)

  7. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 24, 2021 at 7:26 am #

    They were like dust swept together
    in that tall barnlike foyer;
    she thought his face like ill-kept leather,
    then smiled at the cliche
    she’d trotted out to categorize
    a man she did not know
    with his darting squirrel-like eyes
    who smiled like a bonobo.
    In turn he thought her like Madonna,
    but not the Mom of Christ, alas,
    who danced like barnyard fauna,
    with a voice like breaking glass.
    The were soon wed, happy ever after,
    each heart awash in secret laughter.

  8. G Chops February 24, 2021 at 7:28 am #

    I kinda liked that fire hydrant one.

  9. Stephanie February 24, 2021 at 7:46 am #

    Great reminder! Your post sang like a guitar solo in a metal band ballad.

  10. Sandra February 24, 2021 at 7:52 am #

    Easy like Sunday morning?
    Her eyes were cold as ice?
    That dog don’t hunt…ok I’m done!
    Starting to head down a rabbit hole, beyond a point of no return. Ugh!!!
    Be blessed y’all!

  11. frank February 24, 2021 at 8:23 am #

    You make a tear run down my face.

  12. Marilyn A Turk February 24, 2021 at 9:09 am #

    My heart fell because your words did not fall on deaf ears. My mouth gaped and eyes widened when your message hit home, and a shiver ran down my spine as fear’s icy fingers threatened my resolve to write.
    But the question remains, “What about Bible verses? Are they not cliche? They are certainly not original.

    • Bob Hostetler February 24, 2021 at 10:06 am #

      Marilyn, you’re right…we’ve made many Bible verses into cliches and platitudes. Romans 8:28, for instance.

      [Please direct all brickbats to Marilyn A. Turk]

  13. Kathy S February 24, 2021 at 9:14 am #

    Overwrought similes are like fingernails on a blackboard!

    But a serious question: Are cliche similes/metaphors acceptable in dialogue? At risk of being labeled ‘unimaginative’, I’d rather stay true to my characters’ voices.

    In my experience, sharp similes and metaphors are rarely (if ever) used in everyday conversations.

    • Bob Hostetler February 24, 2021 at 10:05 am #

      Kathy, yes, cliches are forgivable–even sometimes good characterization–from the mouths of select characters.

  14. Angel Moore February 24, 2021 at 10:32 am #

    I can never say anything angelic. No character can sing like an angel, have an angelic face, or even be as kind as an angel. It just sounds pretentious.

  15. Paula Geister February 24, 2021 at 10:58 am #

    First let me say, Leif Enger is a master. His “Peace Like a River” was the first fiction work in which I highlighted, made margin notes, and made page references in the back like an index. In my opinion, the best line from that story is on page 294: “Fair is whatever God wants to do.”

    Me? I’d like to see in my own writing vivid metaphors and similes as numerous as fleas on a dog’s hind leg.

    Thanks always for your insights and helpful advice.

  16. Janice L. February 24, 2021 at 11:53 am #

    My heroine in a severely-cut gray suit: “If not for the small brooch sparkling on her lapel, she’d resemble a battleship. “

    • Kathy S February 24, 2021 at 12:12 pm #

      Janice, that is definitely evocative, without being overwrought!

  17. Kristen Joy Wilks February 24, 2021 at 12:19 pm #

    Sing like the teakettle that my husband forgot on the stove until it boiled dry and filled the house with the tart scent of blackening metal … again! But seriously, thank you for all these great examples of what not to do!

  18. Deena Adams February 24, 2021 at 1:00 pm #

    Thanks for great advice served up with humor. Your posts always make me smile like a Cheshire Cat.

  19. Steve Laube February 25, 2021 at 12:50 pm #

    Only time will tell if all that glitters is not gold. But I have this heart-stopping fear that scares me out of my wits. I woke up on the wrong side of the bed one day and hired Bob Hostetler.

    • Bob Not Hostetler February 25, 2021 at 1:01 pm #

      Aiyiyi, the boss speaks! I can’t believe he let everyone see his fragile mental state in this comment. Please, don’t nobody tell him I said that.

  20. Stephan March 2, 2021 at 2:46 am #

    An eye opener for sure!

  21. Hope Ann March 2, 2021 at 7:30 am #

    “He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.”

    This made me laugh so much.

    I overuse both similes and metaphors in my writing. For my first draft I just go ahead and write them. The second or third draft, I go through, cut half of them, then make the rest as strong as possible.

  22. Jeannie Delahunt March 29, 2021 at 8:48 am #

    A little more clarity, please.

    So, is the message here to stir clear of all similes and metaphors, or just those commonly used?

    I thought, “…plain as a hymnal” and “…short and bright as a puffin” striking.

    Thank you, Jeannie

    • Bob Hostetler March 29, 2021 at 10:31 am #

      Jeannie, the message I tried to convey is that of the post’s title: “A cliche simile (or metaphor) is a bad simile (or metaphor).” We need not steer clear of ALL similes and metaphors, as a sharp one (like the Enger example) can enrich our writing.

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