The Dead Metaphor

When I started fiction writing last year, I learnt from the oh-so-helpful Twitter writing community, that ‘clichés’ are a no-go area. I did my best to resist them in my latest novel, ‘The Hoax’. Yet, as I worked through my manuscript after its first edit, I discovered that my editor had removed many of my analogies, or what I thought were acceptable metaphors. I jumped onto Google and began scouring the internet for metaphors and suchlike.

What is a metaphor?

A metaphor is a literary device that imaginatively draws a comparison between two things. It is used to conjure up an image in speech or writing.  Simply speaking, it is saying something is ‘like’ something without using the word ‘like’.

A great example of a metaphor is this classic from Shakespeare:

All the world is a stage!

William Shakespeare


“Their cheeks were red as roses”

When the comparison is being made, it does not say ‘is like’, or ‘as’. This would be a simile. E.g.: ‘Life is like a box of chocolates,’ or, ‘as blind as a bat.’ However, many of these are also clichés. But I feel I am resurrecting my English grammar O-Level now, so will move on!

Dead Metaphors

George Orwell defined a cliché as a “dying metaphor;” but as previously indicated, there are some similes and idioms that fall under clichés. Not to mention proverbs like ‘better to be safe than sorry.’ The more I started to investigate matters, the more I realised I had opened a can of worms!

But let’s keep things simple for now, and just stick to metaphors.

It is the over-familiarity of metaphors that causes them to die off. With time, we rarely bother to conjure up an image and take them for granted. I know this to be true since I had never realised that the phrase to go ‘belly up’ comes from a dead fish floating to the surface (with their belly up!).

I wonder if ‘tits up’ is also a dead metaphor?! Moving swiftly on…

The beauty of metaphors

It may be hard to believe, but when metaphors first evolved, they evoked all the senses. A phrase like ‘she took my breath away’ would have you taking a huge inhale of breath, your lungs constricting as you imagined the physical impact of the ‘breath-taking’ image.

But as language evolves and we start to incorporate these phrases into our everyday life we stop picturing – if we ever did at all! This is when we need to stop using them in our writing.

Life is not a bed of roses…do you conjure this in your mind’s eye? I doubt it. How about he has a heart of gold…do you stop and think about this precious metal and how valuable it is? Unlikely. If it doesn’t evoke imagery in your mind, the chances are it should be obsolete in your writing.

I would like to demonstrate the metaphor dilemma with the outdated cliché kicked the bucket – do you know where this comes from? If you are like me, you probably just associate it with dying, which is of course true, but read on…

Kicked the bucket

I discovered the saying was born in the 16th century and there are two very different theories.

  • People would stand on a bucket whilst hanging themselves from a beam, to end their life. They would ‘kick’ the bucket away to strangle themselves. Sorry – a bit morbid, I know!
  • A bucket was a type of beam that was used to slaughter pigs by hanging them upside down. The pigs would struggle (sorry again!) and kick the beam (bucket). This evolved in Norfolk of all places, and the word is still used in Norfolk dialect today.

The fact that we no longer picture, or (in my case) have any awareness of the meaning, indicates the saying is a dead metaphor. 

Message to writers

So, the reason that writers are deterred from using dead metaphors or clichés is, I presume, because the reader will skim over these without truly capturing the image. It is lazy writing, and far better to take the time to think up something new; perhaps even pioneer your own metaphor. 

Whilst not my own, and perhaps not so new, the following are some great examples of effective metaphors;

“Exhaustion is a thin blanket tattered with bullet holes.” ­– If Then, Matthew De Abaitua
“The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid near and nearer the sill of the world.” ­— Lord of the flies, William Golding.

I found these two really evoked some clear imagery in me.

We are taught as writers to ‘show and not tell’, so including dead metaphors is certainly not showing. 

How to avoid the pitfalls 

If your dialogue sounds familiar, the chances are you are using a cliché or a metaphor that needs to be buried. I’m not going to lie, I find it hard to come up with descriptions sometimes, but have learnt it is better to put nothing, rather than use a cliché.

However, there are some ways to cheat I’ve discovered.


  • Strive to create a new cliché – consciously make up your own!
  • Put a new spin on an old cliché – a definite cheat!  
  • Write realistic dialogue – read it out aloud, or get someone else to read it out to you.
  • Eavesdrop on real conversations for inspiration. 
  • Saving the best to last…try to pinpoint exactly what you want to say and write it! This will imbue the story with authentic, rich, specific details and avoid those throw-away phrases.


Most of the discourse I read during my research, claimed that if a metaphor doesn’t evoke an image in the reader’s mind, then it is a dead metaphor and should be made redundant. However, here’s food for thought. If it no longer evokes a picture as was originally intended, then I’m stumped by the paradox that, perhaps, it is not actually a metaphor anymore! 

Maybe we should reclassify the dead metaphor as some other component of speech and literature – give it a new name such as metaphoid and even keep it in circulation… for old times’ sake!

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