Speaking Metaphorically…

Metaphors are wonderful things…when used correctly. For me, metaphors are the spice…the gentle delight sprinkled through quality writing. They are not sledgehammers.  They should never be clichéd. And they should be used sparingly to maintain their strength. By the way, similes are metaphors in this man’s army, so don’t get all uppity in the comments. Or do, I don’t care.

Originality is perhaps the most important thing. A metaphor is intended to guide a reader’s creative tendencies. Let’s look at some bad ones: “he was fast as a cheetah” or “he was strong like a lion” or “he was a monster on the football field” or “he was a lightning bolt, passing the other runners like they were standing still”. They are boring as shit. They are also clichéd. They are the kind of metaphors you get a gold star for…in third grade.

The idea we are working with is comparing two seemingly incongruous somethings in such a way that some kind of meaning is created. Sure, cheetahs are fast. You can compare your protagonist to a cheetah. But, I would argue that the less the things have in common, the stronger and more interesting the metaphor.

He was as fast as a cheetah. Blah. He was as fast as a whisper at a church potluck.  Hmm, better. He was fast, a whisp of smoke at dusk. OK, a little abstract. He was speed. Seemingly simple, yet direct. He was like a young boy, chasing eagerly, nipping at the heels of a rapidly receding summer vacation. Urg. You get the point, right?

OK, so originality is key. A light touch is also important. So, a lovely evening in a row-boat.

She let her hair fall back, the tips trailing in the water. She felt the sun on her cheek and could hear the gentle birdsong from the bank. She was in love and did not want to question it. She felt no need to. For once, she wanted only to lie with her head back, savoring the gentle feel of love, like a spring breeze on her skin.

That’s nice. I like that. A little thick, but it fits the emotion.  Now, let’s break out the metaphoric sledgehammer.

She let her hair fall back like a waterfall in a dense forest. The tips of her hair wicked the surface of the water, brushes with which she could paint her happiness across the sky. Her love was a thick, ravenous thing…a gentle beast, chest pounding, hiding in the shadows of her contentment. The love was a certainty, a chaste promise, solid as a cathedral ceiling. She did not question it; to question it would be to question the sky…to argue with the stars, to debate the legitimacy of dawn’s assertions. She wanted only to let the sensation wash over her, clearing away the cobwebs and deceits of her terrible banality…the life which often dragged her down into ignominy. She ignored her doubts, swatting them away like pesky gnats and focused on the purity of her joy.

Yeah, I cheated a little because the scene and backstory are a little different, but you get my point. A lot of it comes down to taste. There are probably a few of you who prefer the second…you also probably have lots of doilies. To each their own. I like the first one…it is painted with gentle brushstrokes and creates a picture of simple joy. The second one is kind of like being beat to death with a stuffed animal.

Metaphors are like a writer’s secret weapon. A good metaphor is about the only thing that can make me actually put a book down mid-read. Sometimes, I just have to savor them. To turn them over in my mouth a few times. Granted, you don’t want to take your reader out of the narrative, but there is nothing wrong with making them subconsciously go: ‘damn, that was good’. So, use your metaphors. Avoid cliché. And for those of us who don’t like to drink tea with our pinkies and noses up, for god’s sake, put away the sledgehammer.

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JD Mader is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of the novels JOE CAFÉ and THE BIKER. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and his blog:www.jdmader.com (and musical nonsense here: JD Mader).


Author: JD Mader

JD Mader is an award winning short story writer and novelist. 'Joe Café' and 'The Biker' are out now, as well as 'Please, no eyes'. and the collaborative 'Bad Book'. Mader has been writing for half his life and has no plans on stopping any time soon. Learn more about JD Mader at his blog and his Amazon author page.

24 thoughts on “Speaking Metaphorically…”

  1. I'm with you. I like the first.

    And some metaphors make me stop and reread the lines again slowly – as you say, savouring them as though they had a flavour new to my mind that asked to be explored.

  2. Love the post; despise the sledgehammers! I read a book a while back in while a metaphor or simile was used in every second sentence. Slamming me head into a concrete barrier would have been less painful.

      1. If I had a doily my life would be complete. Also, nice post. It was like a…like a…aw crap. Now I can't think of a good one. Good post, though.

        1. I have many doilies in my life, admittedly most are packed away, but I have them and to me they are like a smile from my mother, a kiss from aunt, an hour over a hot ironing board, okay I get your point.

  3. helpful post Dan, but if you know what's good for you (and for you Mr. Antrobus), you'll back off the doily hate. I've got many knitting needles here and I'm not afraid to use them.


  4. Doilies, yes, funny. I have lots, but don't tend to be heavy on the metaphors. I was at work one day writing and I needed one- "He laid him out like…"

    My co-worker quickly fired back with: "carpet."

    Oh, that was perfect! I thanked her and put it in the book. It was supposed to be a humorous exchange, and that was what I was going for.

    Great article- made me smile.

  5. I love metaphors – and you do them so well, Dan. What irritates me are mixed metaphors – best to avoid if you can't get them right! As in – These hemorrhoids are a real pain in the neck and It’s time to grab the bull by the tail and look him in the eye. No, I haven't come across those personally, but I have come across worse, much much worse!

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