Don’t Fear the Metaphor

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.

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28 thoughts on “Don’t Fear the Metaphor

  1. First of all, I do not know what turkey you’re eating, but turkey never tastes like chicken to me. It has a much stronger flavor than that.

    Second… I never really understood metaphors before this post. And now everything you’ve said including metaphors in the last few months suddenly makes sense. And now my eyes are opened yet again to a process that was just out of my reach but that I now have a better grasp on. Thank you, good sir, for your enlightenment.

    Thirdly, I can’t predict anything about you accurately, much less anything as requiring of your mind and creativity as you naming metaphors.

    1. So… describe. I don’t think turkey tastes quite like chicken either, but it’s the closest thing I could think of. But I didn’t ask you to critique my description— describe it yourself.

      Excellent. If I can clear up any other definitions, I will.

      1. Turkey has a strong flavor. A rich and thick flavor. Like… dark meat vs. light. Only, in turkey compared to chicken, turkey is always dark and chicken is light.
        …I feel an allegorical metaphor coming. With a side of cheese, possibly.

  2. Hmm, you’ve definitely got me thinking here, Liam! I think I grasp metaphors better than I’d initially guess, but including them in my writing requires some thought. As you said, sometimes we include them without even thinking about it. Other times, though, a story can definitely benefit from some thoughtful metaphors. I look forward to applying your advice to my stories!

  3. Oh, I use metaphor all the time in my stories–when I’m thinking about it. Oddly enough, my use of poetic writing and metaphor occurs much more naturally in my non-fiction/personal writing. I’ll pull out an example, but I’m too lazy for that right now.

    As for turkey…again, I’m too lazy to do that right now, and I’m inclined to agree with you that it does taste a lot like chicken. I’ll probably come up with something better later. Tomorrow, perhaps.

    I don’t fear metaphors, but perhaps that’s because I haven’t had to dissect them yet for school. So that may change…I’ll try not to let it, though.

  4. Apparently, I’m one of those people who can’t grasp metaphors to save my life, ’cause this post hardly made any sense to me. I think I’ll have to reread it. I now apparently have a list of posts to reread. There’s at least three, possibly four. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Or maybe it’s just that my concentration has been lacking lately. Which…is a bad thing.

    I did want to note, though (just for the sake of being difficult and annoying) that out here where I live, the wind is predictable.

    1. Okay, so it seems part of the problem is that somehow, I got metaphors mixed up with symbolism. That made things really confusing. But now… I understand what a simile is. I’m just not quite understanding anything deeper than that.

      Maybe I’ll have better luck figuring it out tomorrow morning, when I’m not yawning so much.

      1. I think metaphor is saying something is something else, or using something to embody something else; symbolism is using something to embody something else, but also using the first something’s attributes to reverse engineer qualities about the second something else. Which does not sound much clearer. I apologize.

    2. I apologize. I never mean to write a confusing post.

      That’s true anywhere, if you know how to read it. Small lakes, however, are hard no matter how you look at it.

      1. Yeah. Wind tumbles over the trees in swirls and eddies that die, then puff, then wheeze. It’s like trying to sail on a series of orchestrated burps.

  5. Fascinating… I prefer unexpected metaphors. Bleached white. People normally say “white as snow” or “as sheets.” Lewis used “as salt”, I believe. Tight, concise descriptions are such fun. 😛
    I love hidden meanings. Being transparent is no fun. Symbol is the best. ^_^

      1. Right.
        Subtle use of character: also fun.
        (I love Connor because he’s so screwed up and he doesn’t even know about that for the first part of his novel. He’s a sweet person who doesn’t realize that he is supposed to be used as an assassin… they tore his psyche apart and tried to put it back together again, but he ended up being the one to pull himself back together, albeit leaving himself with amnesia. I think he’s not as messed up as Bucky after Hydra, since they left him his civilian personality for a cover, but the damage to his mind and personality is much subtler and still remains to be seen… Sorry, I have platonic crushes of major magnitude on some of my characters, and that was the New Years’ story I was planning on posting and still might post anyway.)

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