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).