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Writing Metaphor

Some Helpful Tips On Writing Metaphor

I love a great metaphor! Especially one that is fresh and original and enhances the narrative setting, theme and/or voice of a story. I mean, who doesn’t love a fresh, juicy metaphorical image to chew on? Not to mention, writing metaphor can be more fun than body surfing in Hawaii! Okay, maybe not that fun. YMMV!

What is a Metaphor?

A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares one thing to another thing without using the words “like” or “as.” Metaphor can be used to express one idea in terms of another. This connection between otherwise unrelated ideas is a powerful way to describe something in a vivid and imaginative way.

Metaphors can make complex or abstract ideas more accessible and evoke a strong emotional impact by making comparisons that resonate with readers.

For example, describing someone as a “bundle of nerves” (while cliché) conveys their anxiety and nervousness in a more vivid and relatable way than simply saying they are anxious.

Metaphors can also be used to create a sense of unity and coherence in a piece of writing by connecting different ideas or elements through a common comparison. For example, using the metaphor of a journey to describe a character’s life or the process of learning something new helps create a cohesive narrative structure.

Metaphor, used well, can deepen the reader experience by providing lively mental imagery in a symbolic manner that conveys meaning in a sort of shorthand.

Metaphor Can Be Messy

Using too many or disparate metaphors in a single piece of writing can come across as forced or worse, can be confusing to the reader.

Mixed metaphors take place when the writer mashes up one or more commonly used metaphors (or clichés). Sometimes in a confused single metaphor, and sometimes as a combination of ideas in a single scene.

An example of a poorly mixed metaphor would be, “You can’t teach an old dog to change its spots.”  (A mix of “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” with “you can’t make a leopard change its spots.”) It doesn’t really convey a meaningful idea and the writer comes across as confused.

You can potentially mix metaphors in a way that works because the combination makes them feel fresh and still conveys a valid idea.

  • I wish I could be a fly in the ointment at that meeting.
  • Keep your friends close and your enemies on a tight leash.
  • The grass is always greener where there’s low-hanging fruit.
  • It’s an uphill battle unless you play your cards right.

However, when a writer gets carried away with the idea of using symbolic shorthand and includes an array of metaphors that don’t go together or blend with the story, the reader loses faith and confidence that they are in good hands. Having someone spill the beans about how their friend, who is a fish out of water, is stirring the pot behind the scenes is just a bit too much. (Not to mention these are all overused clichés.)

The Problem With Forced Metaphor

Forced or labored metaphor is when the writer injects metaphor into the work in a way that either makes it stand out in a glaring, incongruous manner or, conversely, tries to wedge it in where it makes no sense. It feels artificial and doesn’t make the connection for the reader that lights up their brain in understanding or sensory recognition.

An example of forced metaphor might be describing an elderly person who is uncomfortable with computers as a wooly mammoth. It simply doesn’t provide a clear picture of the author’s intent and, therefore, doesn’t resonate for the reader. It draws attention to itself and not in a good way, and it is likely to make the reader question why it’s there.

Now, if the character in question has about as much use for computers as a wooly mammoth would, that’s a different story.

Metaphor can ramp up the setting and atmosphere. Especially if you are writing in a genre that requires a great deal of worldbuilding, like fantasy or science fiction or detective noir. Have fun with it. You might have your hero think of the cruel villain as “space rubble that needed to be jettisoned.” Using metaphor in this way deepens the reader experience of the world.

By the same token, misuse of metaphor can detract from the theme and the point the writer is trying to make. If writing a story that takes place in a seaside town, it hardly makes sense to use metaphor related to ice-capped peaks or the Sahara Desert, but metaphors tied to water, wind, sand or the feel of skimming across the waves, can enhance the setting and buoy up the story.

Make Your Own Metaphors

When using metaphor, it is also best to avoid cliché. Old, worn-out phrases may be great shorthand when speaking to our friends, but they stand out in our writing. And not in a good way.

That said, because these phrases are so familiar, it’s easy to fall into writing cliché, especially when drafting. So, when drafting, I look at clichéd phrases as placeholders. Something simple I can drop in for now to keep writing, but that I know I need to come back later and replace with something fresh that better suits the world and story. And, if I do some back to it later and find I just can’t come up with a good replacement, I will typically just delete the cliché.

Creating your own fresh metaphor will enhance your prose. And it can also be fun finding ways to express feelings and ideas in new ways that fit snugly into the story we are telling. Rather than he was a “bundle of nerves,” consider he was “a frayed wire.” Instead of feeling like a “fish out of water,” how about a “bear in a tuxedo?” These may not be perfect, nor fit in your specific story, but you get the idea.

Used poorly, metaphor can easily distract the reader and detract from the experience, but when used well, metaphor can elevate a story, deepen reader experience, and enhance the theme.


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Published inWriting