That metaphor is a garnish

This list of infamous metaphors—often purported to be written by real high school students, but actually the results of a contest—is one of my favorite things. Some of its best gems include:

“He was the size and shape of a man much larger than him.”

“He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.”

“She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.”

Technically, that last one was a simile not a metaphor. It’s still amazing.

When a writer does metaphors well—read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha for a great example—it adds great richness and depth to a novel. But when a writer insists on using metaphors and does it poorly… Well I won’t name any names. But the bottom line is that you don’t want to be a writer known for using bad metaphors. Recently, a couple of our clients have asked for a blog post to help them nail metaphors, so we’ve put together our five best tips, plus some philosophical musings on metaphor and language for those who want extra credit.

<span “mso-bidi-font-family:cambria;=”” mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-latin”=””>1.     Read poetry. (Especially old poetry.)

John Donne was a master of extended metaphor. His poem “The Flea,” which seems to make an appearance in any college lit survey course, is one of literature’s best examples of good metaphor: <span “mso-spacerun:=”” yes”=””>

<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>How little that which thou deniest me is;
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Thou know’st that this cannot be said
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Yet this enjoys before it woo,
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>And this, alas, is more than we would do.

<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Where we almost, nay more than married are.
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>This flea is you and I, and this
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Though use make you apt to kill me,
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Let not to that, self-murder added be,
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Wherein could this flea guilty be,
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
<span “font-size:10.0pt;=”” font-family:times”=””>Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

In this seduction poem, the speaker uses an almost grotesque image—the mingling of blood that takes place in the body of a flea when it bites two people in quick succession—to try to convince his sweetheart to have sex with him. This kind of metaphor has to be executed masterfully to work, but Donne uses it to remarkable effect. In general, poets are really good at this. Read John Donne, George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Denise Levertov, just to start with. Pick up a poet’s pen yourself and try to write an extended metaphor imitating one of these famous poets—it’ll give you excellent practice that you can translate into your fiction.

2. Match the genre.

Metaphors are really only good or bad within their surrounding context. Some of the travesties on the list of metaphors we linked at the beginning of this article could potentially work if the tone of the novel fit them. You don’t want to waste a subtle, exquisite metaphor on a slapstick comedy; neither should you use a comedic or absurdist comparison if your tone is elegant. Make sure to match the tone of your metaphor to the genre and voice of your piece.

3. Clichés are not your friend.

Most of you should know this already, so I’ll keep this one brief. I don’t want to beat a dead horse after all.

See, you don’t like it when I do it to you. Don’t do it to your reader.

In the same vein, don’t make the metaphor too literal. We don’t like clichés because they’re obvious. We expect them. They cannot surprise us, and, thus, they’re not going to give us a revelation or tell us anything new. It also follows that a metaphor shouldn’t be too simple or literal, as this also fails to tell us anything new about the metaphor’s object. There’s a reason John Donne didn’t compare his flea to a gnat or to a speck of dust.

4. Work backwards from the emotion you want to evoke.

Remember that you’re trying to give the reader a revelation. As you craft metaphors, think carefully about the feelings you’re trying to compel in your readers. Don’t start with the object of the metaphor and the question, “What is this like?” Start with the emotion and the question, “What’s an image that evokes this?” Pro tip: If you want to look for evocative images, to help jumpstart the process, Pinterest is your friend.

5. Avoid overuse.

Above all, don’t use too many metaphors, and try not to mix them unless you have really good reason to (and only then if your editor agrees that it’s a good idea). You want them to add to, not distract from, the story. A good rule of thumb is to not use a metaphor more than once every couple pages (this can be broken, if there’s a good reason for it, but it’s a decent place to start). They’re like a garnish–they add a lot to a piece of fiction by their presence, but if you use too many, you won’t impress anyone. Don’t be the Joe Fox of metaphors.

[Going deeper]

For those who enjoy thinking about language from a philosophical perspective, it is worth noting that many theorists view language itself as fundamentally metaphorical – that every word is, in essence, a metaphor for something else (“it’s metaphors all the way down”). Without getting too destabilized trying to wrap our minds around this idea, there are significant practical applications to our writing in taking the metaphorical nature of words seriously. The most readily apparent is the importance of being fully aware of the richly interwoven tapestry of related meanings that exist within each word or image that we create. For example, when considering effective word choice, a character thinking of close friend as a “pal” as compared to a “comrade” can potentially tell you worlds about the nature of their relationship apart from strict denotative meaning.

This associative potential within all words gets compounded when using more explicit, self-conscious metaphors such as “my father was a lion in his prime” or “she glided nymph-like across the floor.” Encountering a character thinking of his father as a lion presents the reader with a meaning-laden image that is more novel and more complex than a straightforward description. This defamiliarizing of language opens up possibilities for constructing meaning that the continual overuse of conventional associations tends to restrict. This is why clichéd metaphors are useless: they give the reader a meaning that they are entirely used to, a meaning so ingrained in the norms of our language that it almost ceases to exist. However, the more novel the metaphor, the more it disrupts our expectations, the more possibility it creates for the reader to encounter a new way of understanding a familiar reality.

However, along with the exciting possibilities created by explicit metaphors comes the danger of losing control of meaning altogether, of not giving the reader enough stable familiarity to remain within the boundaries of meaning you as the author would like to encourage in your story. This can happen when an author introduces a metaphor that succeeds on one level while creating unintended negative associations on another: For example, if I described a powerful man’s body as an impenetrable fortress, intending to convey only his great strength and resilience against harm, I might also unintentionally communicate that he is the sort of person that shuts others out, that he’s perhaps afraid of closeness. If, however, this full range of meanings serves to accurately describe my character, then it would serve as a beautiful illustration with multi-layered meanings.

But it is the instability and the defamiliarizing shock-value of truly good metaphors that requires a great deal of discretion and sensitivity on the part of the writer. When done well, metaphorically dense passages can result in some of the greatest moments of literature; however, most of the time, a single, well-crafted image can shatter open the darkened windows of a reader’s mind. Just remember: the more metaphors, the more potential meanings, which means more for you to keep track of. Always consider this question: Can I communicate exactly what I’m trying to say concisely and effectively without using this image? If so, use more straightforward language. If not, unleash the metaphor.


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