Metaphors: Tricks and Tips for the Everyday Writer

Welcome to March’s Editor’s Corner. Seeing as this month is all things fairytale, I wanted to touch on something (vaguely) related and a nice slide into my next post.

Metaphors.

So… the basics…

What is a metaphor?

Anyone who made it past primary school knows what one of these bad boys is and roughly how to use them. For completeness, I shall include Google’s definition:

“a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.”

It’s not just a literary tool. We use them all day and every day in our lives.

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.”

“It’s all hands on deck today guys.”

“Came stumbling in he did, three sheets to the wind he was.”

If you are a teenage girl.

“I saw Taylor Swift yesterday. She smiled at me and I just died.”

And my favourite two at the current time…

“Not my circus, not my monkeys”

“We don’t have a dog in that race.”

We use them so often in fact, we sometimes have to stop and actually think about it to realise we are being metaphorical. We each have our favourites that become like catchphrases that follow us around our lives.

Metaphors in writing:

In the wider sense, we have all got this one down. Metaphors are used as a descriptive tool to heighten the reader’s experience of our world… bla bla bla… And for some writer’s that’s enough. That is how a good writer uses metaphors. A great writer uses them for so much more.

Metaphors are one of your most powerful tools when it comes to giving readers a powerful sensory experience so here’s a few tips to keep in mind while editing:

1. Beware The Cliché.

Beware of the overused metaphor. Yes, there is a reason that things become a cliché but hear a thing often enough and it looses any of its power. It stops being associated with the story you are telling and becomes just a dead metaphor because it has lost any impact it could have had. English is one of the most dynamic languages on the planet. Our dictionary and phrase books are constantly changing and so should be the way we use it. Try and be original with your choices where you can but…

2. Don’t Be Too Original

I feel sorry for EL James. She really should have words with her editor. It still astounds me that the following quote made it to the final published edit.

I feel the color in my cheeks rising again. I must be the color of The Communist Manifesto.

This goes down for me, as a crash course in how to turn a metaphor into a trainwreck. I examined this one in a post a couple of months back with a simple conclusion – the reason everyone knows (and makes fun) of this quote is because it jars with the story and its characters. As I said at the time, “if I was where she was, I promise you, the communist manifesto would be the last thing on my mind.” James had the chance here to help us see the world through Anastasia’s eyes but instead she’s gone with the first red thing she could think of. She panicked. She didn’t want to go with the cliché (red as a tomato traditionally – and let’s face it, that’s no prettier a picture) but instead of thinking about it, she threw down the first red thing she could think of. Learn from her my fellow writers. Metaphors, at the end of the day, should be background. If they are jumping up and down and waving a flag, you might want to think of toning them down.

3. Achieve Something

Okay, yes, metaphors are for description but that doesn’t mean that’s the only function they can play. Here are just a few possible secondary uses to keep in the back of your mind when editing:

  • seeing the world through the protagonists eyes (e.g. character development),
  • story mirroring (e.g. using environment to reflect character inner emotions),
  • tone setting (e.g. Dickens is rather renowned for using weather to set the mood for each section of his story).

4. Beware the Invisible Metaphor

What do I mean by this? I said at the top of this post that we all have those go-to metaphors that we use day in, day out without even thinking about it. And they are the ones you won’t see in your writing but I promise are there. Beware of them. Unless you are writing specifically so that it is your voice and the way you personally view the world that is to come out through the prose, steer away.

5. Theme and Genre Up

A quick exercise I like to do before I launch into editing is on two sheets of paper, I write on one my genre and on the other, I write my key theme. And then I’ll spend an hour or so writing down words and ideas I associate with both. I first came across this idea at high school and a tip from my English teacher. He said that my writing lacked depth. On the surface I was doing everything right. Let’s say I was writing a fairytale. I had the prince and princess, the goofy sidekick and evil witch and the plot was suitably heroic but it felt shallow. He suggested I looked not at what I was writing but how I was writing it. Instead of just using the first words that came to me, to sit down and reduce my lexis into one of words that echo the story I was trying to tell.

Clear as mud right?

It has taken me a long time to get my head around it. It was only after I started seeing it in the work of others, I began to understand.

Here’s an example. Let’s take a base phrase.

“He’d hit a brick wall.”

Generic. Cliché. So let’s fairytale it up.

“He’d worn his pickaxe down to wood but the mine refused to fall.” (Snow White)

“He’d kissed so many frogs his mouth had gone dry but still the happy ending eluded him.” (Princess and the Frog)

“He’d run out of dragons to fight.” (Sleeping Beauty)

Of course, this isn’t a simple swap exercise. I refer back to point 2. Unless the prose will suit it, all three of the above are purple flag waving metaphors and in this case it is on purpose to emphasis the point of the exercise. In reality, if you choose this path, your choices will be subtle and linked very deeply to your own themes you have running through your book. If your style is very straight forward and to the point (what I like to think of as the German way of writing – precise, no-nonsense, like a good BMW – it does the job and does it well) then you’ll probably find these more trouble than they are worth to slip in. However, if your style leaves you open for a little bit of floral artistry (let’s call this the Italian approach – like a Ferrari – always pretty, rarely the most efficient, likely to break down at a moment’s notice) then I’d really suggest having a play around with these. If nothing else, it’s a fun writing exercise to spend an afternoon coming up with the most wacky themed metaphors you can. It really makes you think about the language and moreover the words you choose.

 As always, happy Monday

Maxi 🙂