In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
When a simile or metaphor doesn’t work, the results are sometimes funny and sometimes embarrassing. […] [What you really want to avoid] is the use of cliched similes, metaphors, and images.
Cliches in writing often happen accidentally. You don’t sit down to do your writing that day meaning to write a cliche or two. Or three. Or five.
You’re trying to find the best way to write a sentence, something comes to mind, and you type the words. The sentence sounds good, so you move on.
Here’s the deal: you’re going to write cliches in a first draft.
They’re going to be everywhere on a micro level, and you might even have some at a macro level.
The trick is to find them when you revise your work, and eliminate as many as you can, hopefully all of them.
Cliches come in many forms, shapes, and sizes…
The Micro Level
What King talks about in that quote is specifically similes and metaphors. When you write a really strong simile or metaphor that totally works and is unique, your writing soars, and your reader will likely crack a smile.
When the similes and metaphors are cliches, however, your reader will probably groan.
You know the typical ones.
happy as a clam
light as a feather
pretty as a picture
Worse, there are the even more obvious cliches that we see and hear practically on a daily basis.
The rest is history.
Every cloud has a silver lining.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Your writing should have none of these. These kind of similes and images might come off your fingertips when you’re powering through the latest pages of your first draft, but keeping them there is a big no-no. These kinds of phrases stink like you know what. Avoid!
Other cliches that pop up in writing all the time that you should work hard to cut out or at least mix up with a little variety? Lines like these…
Tommy rolled his eyes.
Hey, I’ll be the first to admit I use these from time to time. You’re writing a three-page dialogue scene and occasionally you need a “he nodded” or a “she shrugged.” Sometimes two words like that can break up the dialogue in a way that helps with the rhythm.
But keep an eye out for these kind of cliches, and only use them sparingly.
The Macro Level
Moving further in talking about cliche, you should also look at any cliches you’re dealing with at a macro level in your fiction writing.
Think of the premise of your novel before you write it. Think of the backstory you’ve created for your main character. Is anything obvious?
Is anything something we’ve all read before in other books or seen before in a dozen movies?
In short stories, you want to take huge risks with your characters and storytelling. and there truly is no room for cliches when you’re dealing with a work of fiction that’s, say, 5000 words or less. The competition is so fierce when it comes to selling short fiction to magazines that if there’s even a whiff of cliche anywhere in the manuscript, it’s going to be that much harder for you to sell your work.
You can get away with cliches here and there in a novel, I suppose, since there’s so many words you’re working with, but you should at least try to avoid cliches when it comes to the major elements of your story. The first draft of a novel takes months to write. After that, you’ll spend a few more months, possibly years revising it.
Pick novels to work on that are free of cliches.
You want to write a novel you’re passionate about, that is wholly unique and something only you could write. Don’t waste months or years of your life writing a book that has a cliched concept, or one-note, cliched characters.
Find that idea that is original, that excites you.
And avoid cliches like the plague! (See what I did there?)