Monday, July 30, 2012

Finding Strong Metaphors

Metaphors are figures of speech in which a word or phrase is compared to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable: I had fallen through a trapdoor of depression.  Metaphors, especially ones where something concrete is symbolic of something abstract, can be the very heart of powerful story telling. Simple examples:

clear glass: transparent
heart: depth, meaning
down: bad, loss
up: good, hopeful

When you want to communicate abstract ideas or feelings (those that cannot be experienced through a sense organ—eyes, nose, skin, tongue), using metaphor is your best option. A good metaphor allows you to communicate with fewer words and far more powerfully than trying to describe the idea of feeling with adjectives and adverbs. The trick is to find metaphors as close to original as possible, and avoid clich├ęs like the plague. (No sobbing over spilt milk or running around like a chicken with its head cut off!)

For example, say you have a character who is in emotional crisis of her own making. Maybe she just had a screaming fight with her closest friend or her lover and walked away, leaving the relationship in tatters. You want to describe the emotional turmoil she's experiencing.

You want to choose something concrete to demonstrate what's going on inside her head and heart. Maybe she stands at the edge of a lake, squinting at the glare of reflected sun off the water. Maybe the glare is so bright that tears form in her eyes. (lake: feelings; sun: light/goodness/brightness; glare: goodness and brightness turned into something bad). The actual (concrete) reflection of the sun off the lake is also symbolic of abstract reflection. She must reflect upon what has happened, what she's done and why, and whether and how to repair the damage.  All that from a simple metaphor of her standing in that place in those conditions.

You can be sure your readers will get it. Our minds speak metaphor even when we don't know it. Even if your readers don't say to themselves, "ah, she's struggling with powerful feelings and has to deal with their harshness and reflect on them), they get it. In fact, it's much more appealing this way. Our brains love to understand through metaphor.

Then, you can be even more clever and extend the metaphor if you want to. Given the power of this crisis, perhaps your character won't be able to whip out the answer in a couple of intense minutes standing at the lake's edge. Perhaps she needs to give herself time and space. Maybe she's wandering aimlessly through her house the next morning and glances up to see herself in the mirror (a continuation of the reflection metaphor). What does she see? What might dawn on her as she absorbs the meaning of the disarray of her hair, the smudges under her eyes, etc.? (Don't tell us, just let us see the hair and smudges, then show what dawned on her by her action.)

Metaphors can be tough, especially for the literal-minded among us, but they are worth digging for. It's good to keep a list of them. Ones you hear that make you smile or nod in appreciation. You'll find a way to use them for sure. One caveat: as Priscilla Long points out in her book, The Writer's Portable Mentor, some subjects defy comparison. You're writing about the horrors of war? Stick with the strong nouns and verbs (see last Monday's post). As Long says, "there's nothing to compare with the blood of children running in the streets, so don't try."


  1. I agree. Metaphors can really make a scene or feeling transcend the paper.

  2. Thanks for another great post Linda. I'm trying to find a metaphor, but my brain isn't working. The word metaphor itself is a metaphor, coming from a Greek word meaning to "transfer" or "carry across." So how do I carry across that I'm exhausted without telling? Hmmm.... I could just be running on empty. But very cliche. Any ideas?

    1. My only idea is to let your poor little synapses get some much needed rest, Karlene. You'll be firing on all points in no time.