Metaphors are one of the most powerful tools available to writers – but they must be used with caution. Here’s how to use them to best effect.
(For our purposes, both similes and analogies are metaphors.)
The word itself comes from the Greek, and means “to carry something across” or “to transfer”, and that’s what it does.
It transfers the attributes inherent in one object/idea/concept to another object/idea/concept. It’s a shorthand way of making your reader understand better whatever it is you’re describing, by comparing it to something that they already understand.
At one level, every single word is a metaphor, by carrying the attributes of the actual object, over to the collection of letters forming the word.
For example, if I write ‘table’, you immediately picture a table. ‘Table’ is just a collection of letters; it’s just that we have collectively agreed to allow it to represent the physical object at which we sit to eat.
But of course metaphors are more than that. Used judiciously they can bring your writing to life. (Used unjudiciously they can be awful, contributing to more purple prose than possibly anything else.)
It’s important to get this right because, as writers, we’re constantly striving to create pictures in the readers’ minds, using nothing more than these little black marks on paper … it’s a huge task, and metaphors help hugely with that.
What we do is to take something that the reader already knows, and apply it in a new way to our specific situation.
So, for example, consider the famous description of getting information from the internet being like drinking from a firehose.
I love that image. It tells us so much in a very few words, which is the work of metaphors.
That image of the fire house tells us that we do get what we want (i.e., the information/a drink), but that we get so much of it that it becomes a problem by overwhelming us. But it tells us that without specifically saying so.
So … that’s what you’re aiming for in your writing.
Another good example comes from the children’s writer Jonathan Stroud. He described one character as having a face “as red and wrinkled as a sun-dried tomato”. Isn’t that terrific? Don’t you immediately get to picture that character?
I read another terrific example the other day. The well-known writer Harlan Coben said that something would chafe as much as ‘a tweed condom’. Can’t you just picture immediately how much that would chafe? I’m a woman, and even I can totally get it!
There are two things to avoid with metaphors:
The best metaphors are apt, original and vivid without being overdone.
I suggest that in various situations you consciously try to pick out descriptions. When you’re sitting on the beach, or in a pub, or wherever, look around and try to describe what you’re seeing. What is that sky like, that’s not azure? What are those clouds like, other than cotton wool?
One trick is to mix the senses. What does that sky taste like? Or smell like? Or what do the clouds feel like? Maybe the clouds feel as soft and pliable as a crumpled duvet. Does that help you to picture them?
It’s not easy, I acknowledge that. It’s hard work to pick and probe and strive for new metaphors. But a) it will get easier with practice, and b) it’ll make such a huge improvement in the quality of your writing.