Having read several of the articles on this website, I was struck by the overwhelming focus on bad writing; grammatical mistakes, poor development, generic characterization, and dull plotlines abound. There is a certain value and, on a more personal level, satisfaction (demonstrated by the ever-witty “Twilight” critiques) in scrutinizing published authors. However, it has often be said, and truly, that “we learn to write by reading”—by reading, not just by criticizing. I feel that this is an important point for aspiring writers to remember, and so this series of articles will focus on great writing, not bad. I hope that discussions of good books will inspire people to pursue more of them for their enjoyment, help them to acquire new skills, and inspire them to experiment with improved techniques.


The following passage is from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. It is set in England during the mid-war period, written as the reflections of an aristocrat’s manservant. In this extract, the narrator observes his father, an aging butler, revisiting the place where he dropped a tea tray in front of guests.

“I can recall distinctly climbing to the second landing and seeing before me a series of orange shafts from the sunset breaking the gloom of the corridor […] Down below, the shadows of the poplars were falling across the lawn. To the right of our view, the lawn sloped up a gentle embankment to where the summerhouse stood, and it was there my father’s figure could be seen, pacing slowly with an air of preoccupation—indeed, as Miss Kenton puts it so well, ‘as though he hoped to find some precious jewel he had dropped there’.”

Here, Ishiguro deals with ideas about age and decline, using imagery that relates to light, shadows, and evening. These metaphors are among those most frequently associated with the theme of mortality, so for most authors, using them would produce an instant cliché. Ishiguro avoids this pitfall because rather than writing a paragraph of solid metaphor, he embeds key words into descriptions that develop the scene. Basically, Ishiguro takes common symbols and makes them his own.

Instead of a paragraph like Ishiguro’s, a lesser author might write something along the lines of, “My father was reaching the sunset of his long life. The light in his eyes was darkening to orange; the sparking jewel at the heart of his laughter had been lost.” There is nothing inherently wrong with sentences like those; after all, they use the same metaphors to express the same idea. Nonetheless, Ishiguro’s writing displays elegance on a much higher level, for two reasons.

First, look at how the metaphors are presented. Ishiguro tells us about “the shadows of the poplars” and “the gloom of the corridor”, so the symbolic words are linked to concrete elements of his scenery. This demonstrates the “show, don’t tell” principle beautifully, creating a metaphorical atmosphere much subtler than the explicit metaphors in the second description. As a result, the images become personalized, woven into the author’s unique language instead of being added in like catchphrases. Comparing this to art, you could say that Ishiguro has painted a well-known subject, while the other artist has merely made a collage of it.

Furthermore, consider that Ishiguro’s description lays out a scene, develops the characters of the narrator and his father, and furthers the plot of the novel—all at once. By comparison, the second description slows the story down, conveying only the idea that the father is old. This is not to suggest that every sentence in a book needs to efficiently promote key literary concepts, but why should readers indulge a poetic interval if it is neither original nor progressive? Good authors do not pause to regurgitate over-used imagery.


Okay, so Ishiguro used clichés, and we forgive him because he did it so well. How do I do that?

The short answer is, you don’t. Not for a long, long time, anyway. When it comes to choosing metaphors, all obvious imagery, which will include most of your initial ideas, has been employed many times before. It has. It definitely has. How do I know? Because until the Modernist movement (around the turn of the 20th century), writing in the Western world was taught in terms of traditional and Classical conventions, both of which employed staple symbols and characters. So remember, when you come across a cliché, that not only has it been used many times before, it has been used many times before for thousands and thousands of years. This is why, while writing, you need to make it your top priority to find the clichés and move away from them.

Happily, as long as you fall under the general category of “sentient being”, this will be easy. Close your eyes, and focus all of your energy on the subject you are trying to describe. Feel it, see it, live it. Then, without referring to any ingrained, preconceived metaphors, describe the experience. Search for words or scenarios that best reflect the motion or sense of what you want to express. For F. Scott Fitzgerald, after one character closed the door on a windy day, his guests “ballooned slowly to the floor”. Arthur Rimbaud saw “dawn exulting like a crowd of doves”. Rainer Maria Rilke called solitude the ability “to walk inside yourself for hours and meet no one.” The results you get from this exercise will be very personal, although eventually you want to create metaphors that are both original and easy to relate to. Doing this consistently will develop your voice and ultimately allow you to gain control over your work.

Once you are confidently independent of clichés, you have the option of reincorporating them into your work. Know that it is not an option you are obliged to take, and think very carefully whether you want to do so. Consider the following: a) Can I think of a better way to say this? If the metaphor is truly the best description, then you need to wonder, b) How will I use this metaphor in a way that is consistent with my own style, to make distinctively mine, rather than a generic phrase? Ishiguro used a set of common symbols as if he invented them: clear proof that he is a great writer. If you have a single doubt about your ability to integrate the cliché smoothly, then put it down, back away slowly, and run as fast as you can.

Usually, this is what you will end up doing. If you do continue on, however, the next issue is c) Will this metaphor set off the rest of the passage so that, as a whole, my idea becomes more vivid and striking? This is something you need to ask yourself in all cases, regardless of whether the metaphor in question is a cliché or not. So, in answering this, you must treat the cliché as critically as you would any of your other ideas. Once you have truly improved your skills with metaphors, you should be able to control them to suit your own intentions in your work.


Next time, look forward to anthropomorphism…

“Evening was advancing towards the island; the sounds of the bright fantastic birds, the bee-sounds, even the crying of the gulls that were returning to their roosts among the square rocks, were fainter. The deep sea breaking miles away on the reef made an undertone less perceptible than the susurration of the blood.”

-Lord of the Flies, William Golding


  1. OverlordDan on 17 April 2009, 23:19 said:

    Nice article, so rarely before has sleeplessness paid off so well :)

    Great job, and I hope to see more articles from you.

  2. Proserpina FC on 18 April 2009, 00:42 said:

    Thank you for this article on the most ignored narrative method in all of tropedom. Mining the “right”, personal words is really what makes writing enjoyable. Who wants to only regurgitate collages of others?

  3. falconempress on 18 April 2009, 01:50 said:

    Thank you for this:) This is really refreshing, I am hoping to read more from you soon:)

  4. Ty on 18 April 2009, 03:53 said:

    Thank you! I know that everyone who visits this site just loves to read, but it is often easier to criticize bad writing than to praise what is beautiful or inspirational because the mistakes of bad writing are, in many ways, so obvious. Great writing, like Ishiguro’s (everyone should read The Remains of the Day, by the way), finds its greatness in the elegance, subtlety, and supple nature of its prose, and it is therefore exceedingly difficult to analyze and put into words why exactly this writing succeeds.

    You’ve done an amazing, amazing job of putting this into writing — do I even need to say that the writing style you’ve used is lucid, concise, utterly readable and rather irritatingly perfect? (: — and your love of books, of true writing, is palpable. A wonderful example of someone who has “learn[ed] to write by reading.”

    Note: I am NOT maligning criticism here — I think it is useful and necessary, just in small doses and with an awareness of the fact that there are libraries full of truly inspired works waiting to be read and appreciated.

  5. Snow White Queen on 18 April 2009, 17:31 said:

    Great article!

  6. SlyShy on 19 April 2009, 02:06 said:

    Something I’ve wanted here for a long time, but never had the courage to write. Hope you can keep this up. :)

  7. Wumpa on 19 April 2009, 04:23 said:

    Great article. It made me go back to the piece I had written just yesterday to see if I could improve it in such a way, and I’ll definitely keep this in mind whenever I write.

  8. Morvius on 19 April 2009, 11:26 said:

    Ah, yes I remember a certain part from Anton Chekov’s work. It used the contrast of black and white very well.

  9. Jeni on 19 April 2009, 18:44 said:

    Fabulous article, thank you.

    Your delicate analysis of the metaphors of the above paragraph was perfectly unobtrusive. Rather than seeming to wrench meaning from the text, you carefully laid out the meaning of the metaphors, and thus what analysis in English class is all about.

    I look forward to your anthropomorphism article.

  10. Sing on 20 April 2009, 02:46 said:

    :] Yeah. This is the thing missing from II. (congrats on staffhood btw).

    So much of literature out there is beautiful. Not only should we study mistakes and avoid them, we should study beauty and learn from them. Learn what makes literature great, not just of what makes it bad.

    Huge amounts of kudos and a big package of ice cream mochi for you.

  11. Jerk on 20 April 2009, 08:01 said:

    I think it’s all subjective anyway. For example an elegant style like that will not do equally well for all types of stories.

  12. Amelie on 7 June 2009, 22:31 said:

    Wow, wow, wow. This was a truly excellent article. I am very much looking forward to the next one in your series.

  13. Rita Hutchins on 28 July 2010, 18:01 said:


    Thank you for being so clear and direct. I am a Brazilian female in love with the idea of writing stories in English. My biggest challenge will be to separate the perfumed herbs from the lowly weeds. Some of your clichés sound terrific to me.