A while back, I wrote a piece that had nothing to do with food, but food became a running metaphor while I was revising. The food metaphor was so delicious (or maybe I was so hungry) that I rewrote the entire post with food on the brain.
The blog posts I write with metaphors always get a lot of positive feedback; everyone seems to embrace them. Metaphors are clearly useful for enticing readers.
So what makes metaphors work?
What Are Metaphors?
A metaphor is a literary device in which we say one thing is another thing. But metaphors aren’t meant to be taken literally. When I say, “He’s a dormant volcano,” you know I’m speaking figuratively. He’s not actually a volcano; what I’m saying is that he’s got a latent temper.
Why Are Metaphors So Effective?
Metaphors often engage our senses by connecting an otherwise intangible subject to sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste. If you can engage any of these senses through metaphor, your writing will become more vivid, entertaining and memorable; it will be easier for readers to relate to what you’re saying, because they can experience it viscerally.
Metaphors also simplify complex concepts, making them easier to understand and digest. I can spend a full paragraph using detailed, literal descriptions of a character. Or I can tell you that the character is a rat, and looks like one too. In just a few words, I’ve conveyed a lot about the character’s looks and personality. Without the metaphor, it might have taken a lot more time to describe this character.
When Are Metaphors Ineffective?
Ineffective metaphors rely on clichés to communicate an idea: he’s a rock, she’s a breath of fresh air. These are figures of speech (metaphors) that have been around for a long time and made their way into casual usage. They work well in regular conversation but can feel stale in a work of poetry or fiction.
Metaphors also need to be clear. We don’t want the reader pausing to process a metaphor and wonder what it means.
Finally, metaphors should be somewhat sparse and shouldn’t be mixed. If you’ve got a running food metaphor, don’t mix it with metaphors about the weather. Keep it simple to avoid cluttering up your writing and confusing readers.
Experiment with Using Metaphors
Here’s an experiment you can do to explore using metaphors in a piece of writing:
Make a list of twenty-five things. They can be people, places, objects, and topics for discussion. For each item on the list, come up with a single metaphor that could represent it. Be open-minded as you work through the list. For example, one of your items might be child. If you come up with munchkin as a metaphor, you’ll discover that the child has taken on personality and specific features. Let the items on your list inspire the metaphors, but then let the metaphors influence the items in return.
Use Metaphors Wisely!
If you decide to experiment with using metaphors in your writing, come back here and tell us about it!
How often do you use metaphors in your writing? Have they improved your writing? What have you learned about using metaphors? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment.