By: Deborah Brewer
What’s not to love about metaphor? Our language would be impoverished without its contribution to our poems, jokes, stories, and rhetoric. Metaphors enlighten us about one thing by relating it to something else. This connection flashes through our brains like an epiphany, one of the best feelings in the world. In his book, I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor, James Geary jests that “metamorphine” is a habit we all get into as children. We love to chase life’s ah-ha moments, those thrills of discovery—the satisfaction of our innate curiosity.
Writing with metaphors is fun, and adds so much to our work, but working with them can be tricky. Before we discuss how to write metaphors well, let’s review their definitions.
What’s in a Metaphor?
In the “The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992) pp.653,” is found the following reference:
METAPHOR … (1) All figures of speech that achieve their effect through association, comparison, and resemblance. Figures like antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy, simile are all species of metaphor.
In case, like me, you’ve half-forgotten, here are some short definitions:
- Antithesis is the comparison of opposites.
- Hyperbole makes an obvious exaggeration.
- Metonymy is name-calling or name substitution.
- Similes are explicit (explained) comparisons.
- Metaphors are implicit (implied) comparisons.
All of these are useful for adding interest to stories. Try adding hyperbole to humor, and metonymy to romance and fight scenes. You might use similes and metaphors when your characters unite, but antithesis when they go their separate ways.
Characters and Setting
When crafting a metaphor for your fiction work, consider the characters and setting in your story. Use an image consistent with that context, whether the setting is 1920’s America, or the narrative voice is that of a child. Keep in mind, that a good metaphor, like a good joke, requires some commonly understood background or a little setup for success.
It’s good when an effective metaphor aids in understanding, but it can also be destructive when deployed as a negative stereotype, or meaningless when it has degraded into an outworn cliché. Restraint is recommended when weaving a single metaphor throughout a work. Repeat it one too many times and it will lose its impact like a boring old joke. Outdated, overused, mixed, and bad metaphors are all well avoided.
The Old Cliché
These historical metaphors are so outdated they’ve lost their cultural context:
Stan sold goldbricks and well-watered cattle. The other landscapers hated him for it.
Do Stan’s competitors hate him because they are envious of his lucrative business model? No. A goldbrick is a counterfeit gold bar and watered cattle are those that have been watered ahead of an auction to tip the scale, and sales price, higher. Stan’s competitors hate him for being a crooked businessman, but owing to these outdated terms, modern readers might not understand.
A frozen metaphor has completely lost its original meaning and taken on a new one, while a dead metaphor has become so ubiquitous it no longer brings an image to mind. Here are examples of both:
The time before the author’s deadline was running out.
The word “deadline” is a frozen metaphor. It was first used during the American Civil War. A line was drawn around a prison. If prisoners dared to cross it, they were shot dead. Now it means “due date.”
The metaphor of “time running out” is dead. It refers to the sand in an hourglass. Modern readers know what it means for “time to run out”, but the image of an hourglass won’t likely come to mind.
Here is a metaphor first without, and then with, some background to give it clarity:
She was like a daisy with the paparazzi.
She was a daisy, heliotropic, turning her eager face toward the light of the paparazzi sun.
This is a mixed metaphor full of clichés:
When the opposing team closed in on him, Marty lost it. Claws out and teeth bared, he was a cat’s-eye marble short of a bag, playing hard-ball for all he was worth.
When baseball’s the game, the cat’s out of the bag, the marbles are lost, and for all Marty was worth, he was still a few pennies short of nickel, the image of Marty resisting attack is not made any clearer.
Troubleshoot Your Metaphors
If we think of a metaphor as a meaning machine, how do we troubleshoot a broken one? In Geary’s, I Is an Other we find of hint in the example of Carl Jung. When a patient used a phrase such as “a ticking time bomb,” Jung would follow up with questions.
A writer might ask whether there is more to learn about the nature of this bomb. What happened in the moments before the bomb was set? What happens when the bomb explodes? Is there a way to defuse it? There is no need to include every little thing about the bomb in a story, but if the metaphor isn’t first clear in the author’s mind, neither will it be clear in the mind of a reader.
A metaphor comes in two main parts; the target and the source. These are connected by a verb, which is usually “to be.”
A bad, or “broken,” metaphor is, more likely than not, suffering from an identity crisis. The true identity of the metaphor’s target is for the author, still unknown. Thus, the first question to ask would be, who or what is the bomb? Who or what exactly is about to explode?
Consider this example:
She was a ticking time bomb, incessantly nagging until her husband blew up.
Who is the bomb? It can’t be both she and her husband.
She was a ticking time bomb, incessantly nagging until she blew up. Her husband was on constant alert for the fallout.
A couple of years ago I read several books on metaphor and set a goal of writing 50 for practice. Here are two that struck literary notes:
She was a fancy font—so ornate and complicated, she was hard to read.
She met him at the library but decided not to take him home. He had a great cover, but his pages were all glued shut.
I encourage you to experiment with metaphors. While the little thrills of epiphany are alone worth the effort, it may also improve your writing skills. You might even discover a silken thread to tie one of your stories together.
While there are many books about metaphor available, listed below are a few I’ve personally enjoyed.
I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World by James Geary, 2012. An exploration of how metaphor touches every aspect of our lives. Find “metamorphine,” on page 151; Carl Jung on page 215. Borrow it from a library.
I Never Met a Metaphor I Didn’t Like by Dr. Mardy Grothe, 2008. A collection of metaphors from an author who has made collecting quotes a lifelong hobby.
Dream, the PPW 2022 anthology. The short story “Dream Crush” by Cepa Onion, and flash fiction stories, “Sleepstone” by John Lewis, and “Blanket of Joy” by Uchechi Princewill, all employ memorable metaphorical language.
Deborah L. Brewer joined Pikes Peak Writers a decade ago, seeking help with a cozy mystery. When the novel was completed, she stayed for the camaraderie. Now she’s writing short stories. An editor for the PPW 2022 anthology, Dream, Deborah contributes to Writing from the Peak to help fellow PPW members write better with more enjoyment, and ultimately, achieve their writing dreams.