Clichés that are common in speech ("slow as molasses," "sharp as a tack") are easy to identify and avoid. But cliches exist in literature as well, and these are a little more difficult to ferret out. To avoid derivative or cliched language in your writing, you first need to be able to recognize it. To do this, it’s vital that you read as much as possible—anything you can get your hands on, but especially in your genre. The more you read, the more you’ll see familiar recurring images and phrases. In this case, familiarity truly does breed contempt.
An example from contemporary fiction is the phrase "sensed rather than saw/heard," as in:
"Frieda sensed rather than saw the dark figure lurking in the woods."
Certainly this conveys a frightening prescience on behalf of the character doing the sensing, as well as the disconcerting thought that the thing being sensed is so malevolent/powerful/intense that it refuses to be ignored. Still, it’s nearly impossible to read a novel published anytime in the last three years without encountering this phrase at least once (go on, try it; we dare you). But if you’ve only read one novel in the last three years, you won’t recognize this hackneyed usage. The point is, you need to educate yourself about what other writers in your field are doing. Consider it continuing professional education.
Another trap is becoming so enamored of an image or metaphor that you just can’t keep yourself from returning to it—again and again. In a recent novel, a popular and well-respected mystery writer painted the image of a character who was so despicable, so singularly evil, that the protagonist imagined he could actually smell this villain’s perfidy coming through the tiny holes in his telephone receiver, carried on the villain’s voice. Extraordinarily effective—until three chapters later when the author used the exact same image—nearly word for word! The beauty, the wonder, of figurative language for the reader is not just in its "rightness," but in its uniqueness. Don’t sabotage your own best work by wringing the freshness out of it.
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