I love metaphors. I admit it. I love the paradox that sometimes the best way to evoke the essence of something is to describe something else. I love finding that perfect comparison between two seemingly incomparable subjects and thereby shedding new light on one or both subjects. I love the poetry of a metaphor, the impossible personification of ideas, feelings, things, and places.
Unfortunately, however (and perhaps a bit surprisingly), the metaphor and its cousin the simile can be very tricky to master. The perfect metaphor has the power to zap clarity and freshness into any description—to bring a passage to life—to make what is ordinary suddenly unique. It’s this heady experience that tempts most of us into that wild waltz of synthetic similitude. But don’t be fooled: with all that power comes a lot of responsibility. Misused metaphors can not only brand your writing as that of a rank amateur, they will also rip your readers right out of your story.
This is not just a pitfall of the inexperienced; even veteran authors like Jodi Picoult misstep on occasion. In her book My Sister’s Keeper, her description of a roast beef dinner as a newborn baby curled up on the platter, not only made me gag, it also popped my suspension-of-disbelief bubble and destroyed the verisimilitude of her scene.
Before I go any further with the caveats of Master Metaphor and Madame Simile, let me share some examples of metaphors in marvelous action. These are the kind of metaphors that bring scenes to life and infuse color and vivacity into word pictures. (Unfortunately, as I collected these gems over the years, I neglected to note the sources, so if you’re reading along and find something you’ve written, please accept my adulation of your brilliance and forgive me for not giving due credit.)
- “ice-chip stars”
- “a foggy night like moist black velvet”
- “snow falling in great white blossoms”
- “the air conditioning smelled like a wet sheepdog”
- “a bird of prey suspended like a drifting flake of copper”
- “a chuckle like a drain”
- “stars like crushed diamonds”
- “eyes like pieces of sky”
- “the moon was a chip of bone in the sky”
- “the mists like layers of diaphanous scarves”
- “the sun hung in the sky like a pale coin”
- “feminine calligraphy, like a soft whisper”
- “thread-like pulse”
- “breathing the heavy air felt like sucking on cotton”
- “tasted like morbid vinegar”
- “violet dusk like airy wine”
Three guidelines, in particular, should come into play when considering whether or not to include a metaphor/simile in your writing. But first, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let me clarify a few terms.
The metaphor directly describes unrelated objects (e.g. “My office carpet is a blue sea.”)
The simile indirectly describes unrelated objects, via words such as “like” and “as” (e.g. “My office looks like a blue sea.”)
I.A. Richards, in his book The Philosophy of Rhetoric, divided the metaphor into two parts, the vehicle and the tenor. Put simply, the tenor is the subject being described and the vehicle is the object doing the describing by way of comparison. (E.g. in “You are my sunshine,” you is the tenor and sunshine is the vehicle.)
The Three Guidelines
1. Make sure it rings true. You want the attention placed on the tenor, not the vehicle. Otherwise, metaphors can spiral into drawn-out, melodramatic descriptions that actually take the attention away from what you’re really trying to describe. For example, “The woman’s mink stole slithered around her neck like hairy boa constrictor angry at being stolen from its hot and humid home in darkest South America.” Which one are you getting a better picture of—the stole or the snake?
You also have to make sure you choose the right vehicle to accurately convey what you’re trying to say about your tenor. Unless you really want to imply that a mink stole somehow looks like a boa constrictor, the snake example above is probably not a good choice. Readers are likely to wind up visualizing a woman with a green snake wrapped around the décolletage of her evening gown.
2. Avoid metaphors that weaken your description. Not all metaphors are of the scintillating variety in the list above. Some can, in fact, rob the vitality right out of your descriptions. Take a look at this line from David Baldacci’s The Winner: “Her skin seemed to be humming against her bones, as though a million bees had plunged into her body.”
The metaphor here is actually pretty good. A million bees plunging into someone’s body does give us a vibrant picture. Unfortunately, however, in this instance, the metaphor actually takes away from the vitality of Baldacci’s verb choice. Without the metaphor, the sentence, and the descriptive intent behind it, steps out in a much more lively—and much more easily accessible—fashion: “Her skin seemed to be humming against her bones.” Or better yet—“Her skin hummed against her bones.”
3. Use sparingly. Too many metaphors in a row, no matter how brilliant they may be on their own, will always sap the immediacy out of prose. During one of my early edits of my Crusade novel Behold the Dawn, I ran across the following passage in the climax: “He hefted the sword like a pole-ax and swung almost before Hugh realized he had gotten free. The blade’s honed edge caught bone just beneath the shoulder joint and cleaved through like a galleon in water.”
By themselves, I think both “hefted the sword like a pole-ax” and “cleaved through like a galleon in water” work pretty well. But side-by-side in subsequent paragraphs, they rob each other of their strengths.
With these guidelines in mind, go hit the keyboard and have a blast with this delightful tool of prose. And metaphors be with you! (Sorry, couldn’t resist...)