The Writer's Writing Guide: Metaphor

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Metaphor is the likening of two objects, phenomena, or concepts to each other, preferably in an imaginative way that illuminates the primary one of those two objects, phenomena, or concepts.

How is metaphor used?

1. As a figure of speech:

In school, we learn about metaphor as a figure of speech: "My boyfriend is a bulldog." "The day was a diamond." We are told that metaphor is a direct comparison, while simile uses "like" or "as," i.e., "My bed is as soft as a cloud." "When he yells, his voice sounds like a pimple bursting." But many writers use the term metaphor to encompass both concepts. So, while you could say comparisons that use "like" or "as" are similes, be aware that many editors and writers won't make that distinction.

2. To encompass an entire scene:

Metaphor, however, can be used to describe much more than a figure of speech. You can have entire scenes that are metaphors for some theme in the story. For instance, say you have a story about two people who are attracted to each other but, because she's married, can't act on their feelings. Here's your metaphoric scene: They get together at the man's house to discuss their attraction and the woman, to defuse the sexual tension, decides to cook them dinner. When everything is nearly ready to serve, she adds a shake of crushed red peppers to the sauce. But she doesn't realize that the man's jar of crushed red peppers is missing its perforated plastic lid, and so she accidentally dumps out half the jar onto the food. They sit down to eat, but the food is so spicy that they can't touch it. — This is clearly a metaphor for the intense sexual desires they have which they can't act on — or "eat."

3. As a central image:

Connect some strong central image to the major themes. In school, we were taught to call this "symbolism." For instance, in Faulkner's novel The Sound and The Fury, one of the central images is of a young girl — a major character in the book — standing up in a shallow pond with mud on her underwear. This image could be called symbolic of the sexual stain which she brings to her family (and which her family brings to her!). But you could also call it a metaphor for the sexual staining that goes on around this character throughout the book.

4. As other macro elements:

If you are writing a story about a classical composer, for instance, maybe you make the overall structure into a metaphor by structuring the piece like a symphony. Or if you are dealing with the theme of how people play games to overcome the tedium of life, maybe you structure the piece like a game of some kind.

When do you use metaphors?

Ultimately, you will do this by feel, but until then, here are a few guidelines:

1. Do it when you wish to emphasize something. I began a story with one: "I have three daughters, young, pink, and brimming with questions. People tell me I am too young to have so many children. After college, bing! bing! bing! They came as if my life were a book in the wind, flipping madly to the chapter where the spine was made to bend." Here, I wanted to emphasize the speed with which the children arrived in the life of this young mother. This was important because the rest of the story is about how this young mother talks to her daughters about her recent experiences with rock 'n' roll.

2. As a corollary, use metaphors when you wish to slow down our camera to emphasize something. For instance, if you have two characters in a fight, you want the fight to read quickly (an appropriate choice, because the more tense the action, the faster you generally want it to read), so you don't want to make the reader pause to assess a metaphor. However, let's say your two characters break it up for one seething moment:

They stared at each other like two baboons on the kill, grunting, their breath shooting white into the forest dusk. The others looked on, hands frozen around their tent spikes. Then a growl rose from Bill's throat, Johnny clenched his fist and, as the cub scout den mother shrieked, "Stop!" they threw themselves back at each other, pummeling.

3. Use metaphors to give more zip to a piece. But don't use them everywhere all the time. The richer and more textured the writing, the more you want to use metaphors. The sparer the writing, the more sparingly you want to use metaphors. Metaphors are like spices — almost everything can benefit from them, but in tuna salad you just want a pinch, whereas in curry you want three tablespoonfuls.

How do you come up with metaphors?

If you don't care about originality, you will have no trouble coming up with metaphors, since many are embedded in the clichés of our culture. "I'm as hungry as a horse." "We ran like lightening." "His eyes were the blue of a summer sky."

But no good writer will allow clichés in his writing, so you have to find other ways to make original connections.

I have found an approach which takes practice, but works. I'll give you this first, then show you a few other approaches that use training wheels.

1. Abstract up:

Most of the time, we think in levels, but only focus on the most concrete one. For instance, when we think of a chair, we cover many levels — its shape when upright or tipped over, its feel on our bottom when we're sitting, its look in the context of a room, its function as a tool when we're sitting, etc. But by the time we realize we're thinking about a chair, we focus on only the most concrete level — which is determined by what we need to use it for. "I'm tired; I'll sit in that chair." Hence, we are focusing on function. Or, "I'm redecorating; that wicker, Morticia Addams chair looks like the perfect addition for this room." Hence, we are focusing on its look in the context of the room.

Our minds rapidly run through all the ways we could see a chair, then zero in on the one way we need for that moment.

When we're very young, before we have really nailed down language, we operate more fluidly in the space where we can see all these chair possibilities at once. It's a more free-flowing place where we can connect, say, the shape of a chair with the letter H, or with the way Mommy's profile looks when she's leaning on her hand. I think of this more free-flowing place as existing above our more nailed-down thoughts. So when I say, "Abstract up," what I mean is that you go to this free-flowing place to locate your metaphor there.

Let's break this down. First, to write a metaphor, you begin with your primary element to be compared. Let's say we are comparing a children's beach ball. The next step is to think about what aspect of it you are making the metaphor about. Is it the tightly woven surface texture of the plastic? The shape of its trajectory as it arcs through the sunlight? The sound it makes when Uncle Bill slaps it with his palm? The smell of it when you're blowing it up? Okay, let's say we pick the shape of its trajectory. The next step is to try to isolate that element. In this case, I already said to you that the ball arcs through the air. So I now have isolated the image of an arc. I need to see this not like a McDonald's arch — a frozen physical thing — since that's not what a beach ball does; I need to see it as a motion. So I isolate the concept of an object making an arc, and then I abstract up. This can lead to infinite possibilities, such as a neighbor's sprinkler, a softball thrown underhand, the sun across the sky during the day. The one I ultimately select will depend on what I want to emphasize about the story overall.

Another example is a man's back. In this example, our narrator is a young woman who looks out a diner window and sees a former boyfriend for whom she still pines. He's still got his broad shoulders, and she sees him from the back, as he's walking in a tight shirt along the road. She wants a metaphor to describe how his back looks. I decide that she's going to focus on the shape. Then I think of what her context is, and I decide that she's a person who pays attention to nature. So when I abstract up a man's back, I clarify its shape to myself. It's wider at the top than at the bottom, round on either side, and tapers down gracefully. So abstract up, and get butterfly wings.

2. Begin with a known metaphor:

Sometimes, the only thing that comes when we abstract up is a cliché. Such as: "Her hair was as black as night." In this case, you have two main options: move inside the cliché more deeply, or rethink the structure of your sentence.

1. To move inside a cliché more deeply, the first step is to pull out your thesaurus and look up either the word that's the cliché — in this case, "night" — or the word that's your primary element — in this case, "black." Then start a path you keep following. Let's say you look up "night." You see dusk, twilight, midnight — and not much else. You could use one of these concepts, but maybe take them further, so the reader won't see the simple jump between the clichéd "night" and the slightly less clichéd "midnight." Maybe, "Her hair was as black as the hour after bedtime, when I pressed my face to the window and saw nothing, not even the caretaker's lantern in his shack beyond the garden." — Or, you work beyond night. Think of other black things. Again, the thesaurus will help if you look up black, but again, you might end up with the same old stuff — ebony, coal, sable. So, hunt. This is best done by thinking of your context. Let's say the woman with the black hair is a seamstress. Then you can think of fabrics that are deep black. "Her hair was as black as a meter maid's vinyl slicker." Or, "Her hair was as black as patent leather pumps."

2. Rethink structure. If moving inside the cliché more deeply still seems too close to cliché, then you need to rethink the structure of your sentence. As a rule, one ought to do this with all metaphors that originate as simple clichés, because substituting a single word just isn't interesting enough. In this case, you need to think about what you're really saying. Is it that her hair is a deep, seemingly bottomless black? Or is it a black that twinkles as if holding stars? Or is it cold, like a winter's night? What's really going on with this hair? Do you maybe not even need to focus on the color of her hair as much as on the texture, or the scent?

Let's say you do want to talk about the color of her hair. Then, instead of a syntax that goes, "Her hair is as X as Y," how about, "Her hair danced, night-black, in the breeze." (Hence, we put our metaphor into the form of an adjective.) Or, "Her hair tumbled black and rich onto her shoulders like night falling suddenly over the mountains." (We kept the idea of a metaphor, and still used night, but also added the concept of motion. We said two things with our metaphor, instead of the simple one.) Obviously, the possibilities available to you if you use this approach increase tremendously when you see all the possibilities of language.

3. Other language tricks:

In addition to the kinds of examples I used to show restructuring a cliché, consider these. (This list is not exhaustive by any means.)

1. Turn your metaphor into your verb: Original idea: "The students poured into the schoolhouse like wheat pouring into a funnel" — Rewritten metaphor: "The students funneled into the schoolhouse." // Original idea: "The Jesuit priest escorted the young woman and me up to the lecture hall." — Rewritten metaphor (thanks to John Barth): "We were jesuited up to the lecture hall." [Note of caution: This approach of "verbing" your nouns is acceptable to some readers, and almost blasphemous to linguistic purists. Understand the risks if you choose this approach.]

2. Turn your metaphor into a participle: Original idea: "The rally ended with the senator in a rage, arms spinning like a windmill." — Rewritten metaphor: "The windmilling senator crashed into the microphone, thus ending the rally."

3. Use simple comparison phrases: like, as, as much as, the same as, the same way as, as if — "Dawn pecked as swiftly across the alley as a ravenous pigeon." — "He knew the police were combing the woods, yet he was so feverish, he stumbled to the ground as if the grass were a bed and he needed more than anything to lie there." [Note: Most of the time when you feel inclined to use "like" to make your comparison, you should use "as if" instead.] [Also note: some straight uses of "as" sound very archaic: "He was as a warthog to me."]

4. Use more complex comparison phrases: Make a clause with "enough": "Her mittened hands, small enough to slip inside the lid of the jelly jar, waved good-bye to the mailman." — Or use "so x that y could": "Her mittened hands, so small they could slip inside the lid of a jelly jar, waved good-bye to the mailman."

5. Draw it out with "with": "He gazed into my eyes with all the cool intensity of a jeweler examining an emerald for the first time."

6. Make a direct comparative: "Trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky." (James Baldwin) Put your metaphoric comparison into a phrase with "than." "Her scar was wider than the San Adreas Fault." "The phone call took no more time than a commercial."

7. Personification. This is when you compare an object, phenomenon, or concept to a human. "The trees gossiped through the wind." "A gang of storm clouds swaggered across the sky." "The puddles winked good morning."

8. Pun. Useful only if it fits the tone of your piece. "She was typing a list of students' names when her typewriter gave out. It died, like Elvis, while on a John."

Words of warning

Don't overuse metaphors. Otherwise, you'll tire your reader.

Keep metaphors in the context of your piece. A story set in a crack house in the ghetto may not be the best place to compare the way crack users think to the way the scientific community thought before Copernicus. Along the same lines, a story set among the upper crust on Philadelphia's Main Line is unlikely to include a context which would allow you to compare the residents of one prominent estate with different varieties of cheap beer. You can make such comparisons if they are justified later in the piece — if we learn one of the crack users is an astronomer at a local college, or one of the Main Line patriarchs frequents Dirty Frank's downtown. But, barring such justifications, you want metaphors that fit into the greater whole of your story.

Don't get so high-blown with metaphor that we can't make the comparison without a lot of effort, or without laughing at how ridiculous the metaphor itself is. This warning covers two things.

1. The overly long metaphor:

The sun came up over the hotel roof like my mother peeking over the edge of my crib when she was in one of her Thorazine stupors and couldn't get her eyes open beyond a squint and her face was gray and she had mildewy breath and her hand was open, ready to smack me for crying even though I was just a baby and couldn't help myself when my diapers had been wet all night.

2. The purple prose, or overly abstract, metaphor ("Purple prose" is a term that means writing filled with exaggerated literary devices and marked by ornate diction and structure, which makes excessive use of poetic diction): "I lean my shoulder blades against the wall, lost in cloudy thoughts that evaporate as I try to grasp them, and a light goes off somewhere in the fog that swirls inside me." "I'm waiting for the words that feel like swords of pain shooting from my father's mouth."

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