Let’s do something simple, shall we? Let’s talk about metaphor.
Metaphor, outside of the classroom, is just comparing one thing to another. Within the classroom, that’s split into two groups: similes, for comparisons that are blatantly comparisons, and metaphors, which try to convince themselves that they’re fact. For me, metaphors are split into another few groups. Some metaphors are obvious, included in descriptions and barely free of being similes themselves. Others are invisible, buried deep, akin to Easter eggs left by the author for when their book is studied in literature classes. And the last group? Those are the metaphors I make up myself.
If you have any experience with classroom metaphors, you might already be daunted, or skimming. Metaphors are the kind of thing that you either understand faster than everyone else, or can’t grasp to save your life. Luckily, as writers, we can determine our own metaphor levels. If you understand them well, you can write them at the same level. If you barely grasp them, no one is asking for more than you can give. The only rule: practice.
Depending on your writing style, you will use metaphors differently than anyone else. You might prefer brief, factual descriptions; you might instead lean toward the flowery. Either way, metaphors can enhance your writing, and everyone uses them anyway. Don’t believe me? Describe the taste of turkey.
Go ahead. Describe. What have you got? Here’s mine: tastes like chicken.
What is that? That’s a simile, a first level, blatant metaphor. It’s easy to describe like that. When something is incomparable to anything else, we describe it in emotions and adjectives. It tastes good. I like it. So what happens when we try to write with imagery, but without metaphor? We just write adjectives, with emotions of the viewpoint character. I don’t know about you, but that perfectly describes my description style.
Fixing it, in that case, is rather easy. Add metaphors. Easiest, add similes. Harder, add metaphors. Hardest, do everything and then some, hiding things that the casual reader won’t imagine. This gives you a convenient hack to bypassing plenty of amateur mistakes.
C.S. Lewis: don’t use adjectives. Stephen King: don’t use adverbs. This can be achieved with strong nouns and verbs, but metaphors make it
monumentally easier like breathing. Metaphors are your shortcut to description. See how I just made metaphors sound useful via metaphor and simile? That’s a secret metaphor for how you’re going to do the same in your own writing.
Unfortunately, metaphors come with a couple rules, like most other things. First, variance is often your friend. Don’t use the same style for several things in a row. Use similes, then metaphors, then a strong noun, then an emotion, then a metaphor, then another emotion, then a simile, and so on. You’ll be able to see this easily enough as you write, or as you read through later. Don’t worry about it in the first draft.
Second, don’t explain your metaphor unless in pursuit of another effect. If you’re trying to describe, don’t explain. If, as in Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart, the main character is terrible at metaphors, every description is a chance for a joke, and making him explain them is just funny. But, unless that’s the case, thou shalt leave thy metaphors unjustified.
Third, and this is a plea rather than a rule, think harder. It’s easy to jump at the easy metaphor because metaphors are hard enough. Think harder. Nothing against those who go the easy route, but if you realize while writing how cliche this metaphor is, think harder. One of my least favorite parts of All Our Yesterdays, which is a type three made-up metaphor for the entire book, was the descriptive style. In terms of simile and metaphor usage, it was great– every description had them to enhance and expand. Unfortunately, they were all predictable. Eyes were like chips of ice. The main character’s mind was spinning like a top. The metaphors were beats of a military drum, required and predictable, where they could have been the wind, changeable and surprising. But that wasn’t a fluke of metaphor only; that predictability pervaded the entire book, making it mediocre for me. So please, think when you write a metaphor. Thank you. (But remember that metaphors can be changed in later drafts– you need not stress unduly.)
Use metaphors. If you have a great idea for one but can’t make it concise enough to be effective, make it an Easter egg. Think about how you describe and how you can be creative with usage and the metaphor itself.
Lastly, don’t try to predict what I’ll call a metaphor. It’s not worth it.