The Art of Writing Metaphors

Trends in language are just as real (and often just as cringeworthy) as trends in culture. They fade in and out, they’re remixed and replaced. They’re intensely popular and often very bad ideas. Instead of parachute pants we have superfluous dialogue tags, instead of slap bracelets we have metaphors followed by explanations.

It’s a toss up whether explained metaphors started as a misplaced trendy idea or simply evolved as the result of a few writers’ bad habits, but they run rampant in literature today, with no sign of slowing down. If you don’t know exactly what I’m talking about, here are a few examples:

She could only sense someone out there the way you can feel someone watching you across a crowded room—that prickle of awareness, that shiver up your spine. (This Is What Happy Looks Like, Jennifer E. Smith)
He was grinning expectantly like a salesman offering great deals on finance. (One Day, David Nicholls)
Scars littered the buildings, the streets, from what had been done in retaliation for their rebellion: burn marks, gouged bits of stone, entire buildings turned to rubble. (A Court of Mist and Fury, Sarah J. Maas)

Perfectly good metaphors with unnecessary explanations. Take out the bolded words and the metaphors would be so much stronger. See, the point of a metaphor is that you don’t have to explain it. It serves to get an idea across to readers in place of an explanation. But as the style of telling instead of showing grew in popularity, metaphors suddenly weren’t enough. Metaphors could be misunderstood. So, much like actual slap bracelets, boring explanations were hastily slapped onto perfectly good metaphors, leaving the whole thing looking stupid to anyone not caught up in the trend. And as impressionable writers keep reading this literature and imitating it, we’re left with piles of unnecessary prose that is not only boring to read, but that actively insults our intelligence.

Explaining a metaphor is nothing more than not trusting your reader.

In drafts, it can be the result of not trusting yourself enough to get an idea across, but in a published book, an explanation after a metaphor is only there because the author didn’t think the reader was capable of understanding the metaphor without it. There’s a misconception that since a metaphor is there in the first place, the author is showing, not telling. But if you show and then tell, guess what: you’re still telling. You’re still making sure your reader knows exactly what you meant exactly how you meant it, without doing the work of carefully crafting your prose to accomplish that.

Many authors also employ dead metaphors: metaphors that once created an image in the reader’s mind, but have been used and reused so much that they’ve lost all power. Phrases like falling in love or time is running out are both technically metaphors, but readers read them without stopping to think about the image they create. Those are bad. Don’t use them when you can use better metaphors.

So how do you create a real live metaphor that doesn’t need explanation?

Trust your reader.

That’s the first and most important part of writing. If you and your beta readers and your editor all understand your metaphor, your reader probably will, too. As you practice writing and read good books, creating metaphors will come more naturally to you. As you experience the world, metaphors will create themselves in your mind. This thing is like that thing. That experience was similar to this other one. It’s colder than my ex’s black hole of a heart out here. You get the idea. Your reader will, too.

The better you feel about your writing, though, the easier it will be to trust your reader. And while some people are just born with natural confidence regardless of skill level, the rest of us can benefit from understanding what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. So what exactly is a good metaphor?

A good metaphor is one that gets a point across better than just explaining it would.

There are a lot of different kinds of metaphors, and if you want to dig into them, feel free to check out the Wikipedia page or browse the web, but for our purposes a metaphor is simply comparing one thing to another thing for the sake of understanding.1 This can be short, just a couple words; it can be long and extended, like a parable or allegory;2 it can be humorous, poignant, or even flowery and purple. Metaphors are one of a writer’s most powerful tools, and following them with explanations is like following a drop-the-mic moment with an announcement that the red Buick’s lights are on, could whoever owns it turn them off, please.

Rather than providing a long explanation of how to create a metaphor using big literary words that no one uses outside of a high school English class, it’s easier and all-around more useful to just provide examples of good metaphors and explain why they’re good. Hint: for all of them, it’s because they’re not followed with an explanation of what they’re trying to say.

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.

Douglas Adams is a master of metaphor. He’s constantly creating absurd comparisons that somehow exactly get his ideas across. This one is brilliant because it a) uses an unexpected verb (hung), b) surprises the reader with its construction (negating the second half), and c) compares spaceships to bricks, giving the reader the idea that the ships are blocky and unwieldy and probably shouldn’t be flying but somehow are. All without coming right out and saying it.

Using unexpected comparisons can jolt your reader out of complacency, causing them to actually think about and picture what you’re trying to describe instead of just mindlessly floating through your book. Unexpected metaphors are also a good way to write humor, though that’s not their only use.

It struck me, as my automaton knees went up and down, that I simply did not know a thing about my darling’s mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile cliches, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate—dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions.

If you want to learn to write metaphors, read Lolita. Nabokov is quite possibly one of the best writers of the English language, which is vastly unfair considering it’s not even his first language. But learning a language forces you to think about it—all the intricacies and oddities and double and triple meanings—and to create a good metaphor, you have to be intentional.

There are multiple metaphors in this passage, and it’s not even the whole sentence, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll focus on this one: “there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate.” It speaks of her inner beauty (garden), mystery (twilight), and majesty (palace), while making it clear that these were forbidden to him (gate). And while he does go on to explain the part about it being forbidden, he does so in the context of the metaphor (in my polluted rags). He didn’t follow the metaphor with, “She had a rich inner life, and not only could I not access it, I probably shouldn’t want to, either, because I’m a perverted old man.” But we still take that away from the passage.

Somebody had tipped the American continent like a pinball machine and all the goofballs had come rolling to LA in the southwest corner.

Here we have a simile—a type of metaphor3—from Jack Kerouac. It’s straightforward (this is like this), but it’s so specific and vivid that you know more than just the narrator thinks LA is full of odd people. You feel the despondency and resignation, you hear the slight amusement rather than condemnation. It’s a silly image, not a cruel one. And of course we’ve got the wonderful play on words with pinball / goofball, which only serves to strengthen the comparison.

As all of these examples show, the goal of a good metaphor is not to just straight-up compare one thing to another, it’s to describe a thing in such a way that the reader not only gets a picture of it but also gets a feeling about it. The three passages could all be written out as straight explanatory prose, but the authors chose their respective metaphors with a feeling in mind, so each passage gives off a vastly different vibe. Each passage, too, shows that metaphors can be written any which way. There are no hard and fast rules to what makes a good metaphor; any metaphor can be good in the right context.

The only bad metaphor is one that doesn’t do what you want it to do.

Any metaphor, good or bad, will be ruined by a flat explanation shoved in there. If it’s a good metaphor, your reader will know what you mean. If it’s a bad metaphor, delete it. Do your research, experience the world. Trust yourself. Trust your readers. And stop explaining yourself when it’s not necessary.

 

 


1Metaphors can also be used to obscure an idea, but as this is often done for the sake of making a point or getting a reader to think a certain way, it still falls broadly under the concept of “understanding.”

2Allegory and metaphor are not synonyms, but an allegory can be loosely defined as a longform type of metaphor. For a more robust idea of allegory, check out this article.

3Much in the same way that all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares, all similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes.