Ah, metaphors. They are, and likely always will be, a major pillar of most fiction and poetic prose.
A type of figurative language used to liven up descriptive writing, metaphors are primarily a comparison tool. Along with similes, they make up most of our well known ‘figure of speech’ idioms. However, where a simile uses “like a…” or “as a…” – for example, her eyes sparkled like jewels – metaphors are a way of describing an emotion, object or abstract as though it were something else. In this example case: her eyes were sparkling jewels.
It is a small difference – but used properly, it packs some serious emotive punch into your writing.
So in this article, we’re going to run you through the world of metaphors, and how you can get the most out of using them in your writing.
To begin, it’s helpful to know that there are several types of metaphor. This article focuses on the most common:
- Direct metaphor
Some are useful now and then, others are universal, and another (guess which!) should be avoided… like the plague.
That’s a hint at what’s to come. Now let’s break them down!
The most basic metaphor is where an action, object or abstract idea is described as something else. The sentence is usually short, which gives it a big impact in a paragraph and increases the pace of the story.
- Hope is a shiny pebble in the gloom.
- Her words were a blade in his gut.
- The job interview was a ladder from heaven.
- Her hair was a flowing river.
- The classroom computer was a prehistoric fossil.
Implied metaphors are a powerful tool – but subtle. Instead of directly transposing one thing onto another, you obliquely relate them.
These metaphors require more effort to create, but if you conjure a fresh one, they can make your reader sit up and pay attention without hesitation.
- The wheels of justice turn slowly.
- There are a few Monday morning quarterbacks in the group.
- Men and women pass in the street, glad of the shining sapphire weather.
- The Porsche crouched on the grid, growling in anticipation.
- Curiosity can be dangerous; we have to keep it carefully chained and muzzled.
These are some of the most powerful and thought-provoking metaphors you’ll come across. Not every story will use this technique, but it has the potential to turn an okay story into a prize-winning novel.
- Some days my thoughts are cocoons, hanging from dripping branches in the fog-filled forest of my mind.
Extended metaphors can last several sentences or span an entire text, and are often used in poetry:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
The above example, from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, is a prime example of an extended metaphor, using the language of scenes, actors, and parts to describe life itself. Shakespeare was a master of extended metaphors, and you rarely have to tread far into any of his work to find some.
A mixed metaphor is a succession of ludicrous comparisons – where two (or more) metaphors are used that are illogical or incongruous. These often add humor, or a sense of the bizarre, to a scene.
- It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake.
- Don’t pick all your eggs from one treetop.
- A leopard cannot change his shorts.
- He’s not the sharpest spoon in the mailbox.
Also called clichéd metaphors, these are figures of speech that are so overused they’ve lost their impact.
- The ball is in your court.
- Start the day with a clean slate.
- You hit the nail on the head.
- Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
- He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
- Life is a journey.
- You’re skating on thin ice.
Yes… dead metaphors should be avoided wherever possible.
So, now that you’re brushed up on the main types of metaphor, here’s some help for creating fresh ones, and where best to place them in your work.
Tip 1: Avoid clichés
As for spotting clichéd language, you can use the advice of George Orwell:
“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
Most people can pick out a dead metaphor but it is possible to miss some – especially if you ‘invent’ a phrase that is cliché in another language. For example, in the UK, people say “that’s thrown a spanner in the works,” rather than “he’s thrown a curveball.”
(A spanner is a wrench, just to be clear.)
To spot these clichés (important if you want to be published abroad!), be sure to engage the help of beta readers internationally – and ask them to specifically keep an eye out for cliché phrases and metaphors that they know of. They might pick something out that you didn’t even realize was a cliché *ahem* across the pond.
Tip 2: Change a cliché into a mixed metaphor.
The most effective mixed metaphors will combine two clichés that have the same general meaning. Some will work, others will not. Be playful and try multiple ideas.
For example, if someone is working too hard, he’s burning the candle at both ends, or burning the midnight oil. Combined he is: burning the midnight oil from both ends.
This can be a quick route to some effective comedy – so let yourself roll with it, and have a blast.
Tip 3: Experiment to create new metaphors.
Let’s say you’re writing about someone with a great smile. Initially, you write he had a sparkling smile. During editing, you decide you want to deploy a metaphor here instead. However, you still want the idea you’re conveying to be of something bright…
Write the word smile down on a blank bit of paper (or a new document if you’re a computer-only writer), and then the word bright – the adjective you want to link to his smile.
Now think… what things are bright?
The sun? The moon? Diamonds? Knives? Lightbulbs?
A straightforward metaphor would compare your two nouns.
- His smile was the sun.
- His smile is a diamond.
You could leave it here – but things can get much better if you stretch a little further…
Tip 4: Think further
Pick a few favorites; let’s use the sun for this example.
Make a brain dump: what does the sun make you think of?
Sunshine, rays, warm, hot, radiation, radiance, glowing, bright, big, huge, distant, inside a cold vacuum of space, the center of solar system, planets orbit it, still, constant, old, dangerous, radiant, life-giving, dawn, sunset, sunrise.
Implied metaphors use these indirect links to the sun:
- His smile was sunshine.
- Warmth radiated from his smile.
These are implied metaphors because you are comparing a smile to the sun, but not writing the word sun. The reader is now forced to use their imagination and engage with the text.
But there could still be room for bigger, bolder things…
Tip 5: Combine ideas
Make an extended metaphor using several implied metaphors together.
- My life orbited his smile. I waited, cold and distant, anticipating the warmth of its dawn. To bask in the life-giving rays I needed.
Okay… that’s not the best, but you get the suggestion. Here, we have an image of a character obsessed with seeing a smile. It leads to questions from the reader. Is this a weird, potentially abusive relationship? A mother focused on making her son happy? Why is the narrator left so cold without this smile?
There is a lot a writer can pack into such a metaphor. It may take lots of practice to start having yours come out, shall we say, less than clunky – but it’s well worth it in the end.
Tip 6: Don’t overdo it
Sometimes, a simple description is more than enough.
You may wish to say that a character has a sparkling smile, and decide to do it through metaphor. Her smile was the glittering ocean, you type, as the honey drips from your fingertips (like it did ours in the previous tip).
Yeah, don’t overdo it. Needless metaphors, or an over-abundance of them throughout your manuscript, will weaken the impact of the good ones you have in there – and like individual words, metaphors become very annoying for readers when they’re trotted out repetitively.
He looked at her. Her eyes were [metaphor] as she reached for him. [metaphor] [metaphor] his [simile] as he [metaphor] and the [metaphor] and…
If you’re slotting in metaphors constantly, in an attempt to spice up your writing in a literary sense, chances are you’re more than a few steps down the path to full-on purple prose. Reel it in and understand that your priority is getting on with the story, not sounding as majestically verbose and visionary as you possibly can.
Overall, simple and short implied metaphors are more useful in fiction prose than extended metaphors. Try placing your extended metaphors at the beginning or end of a chapter – they can really help give the scene that added dramatic impact.
A final thought: many writers use consistent metaphors in their novels, often tied to an underlying theme. The sun, for example, may be one such reference. To use this method, decide on one metaphor that’s central to your theme, and use implied and extended editions of it at key moments.
But the best way to invent metaphors for your writing is… to just give it a go! Keep these tips in mind when you’re getting started, and be sure to share your creations in the comments.
(Especially any of your favorite mixed ones. Who doesn’t enjoy some absurd comedy, eh?!)