Metaphors in Your Writing

Language works on many levels: literal, metaphorical, poetical.  As writers, we must beware of the breadth of its uses, and it behooves us to be comfortable with all of them.  A strict commercial writer (think freelance articles for magazines) would do well to understand nuances of poetry, for example.

This kind of study only makes your writing stronger.  A poet should learn how to lay out a clean argument in a series of interrelated paragraphs.  A novelist should study the craft of the short story and learn structure from it.

Every writer can learn something from a different school of writing, and we all should study the use of metaphorical language.

He smiled like a python about to strike. 

She was a boulder, solid and immovable. 

He darted from the room as if his hair were on fire.

In her book The Writer’s Portable Mentor Priscilla Long lists eight different types of metaphors.  I had no idea before encountering this book that there were this many forms.

This writer’s handbook offers the exercise of picking one of the metaphor types and writing about it for ten minutes, always beginning your sentences with the same thing, in my case “He stepped away from his father…”  I used my novel-in-progress, Forecast, and selected a sentence in which a boy sees his father after several years’ distance.  It was a tense, emotional scene and metaphors seemed apt to cast more light on the situation.

The form of metaphor that I used is termed “X does something like” and it compares on action to how another action is done.  Here is my work.  I underlined the sentences that struck closest my direction for the scene.

He stepped away from his father as if he’d just stepped in dog poop. He stepped away from his father as if he wanted to study his weak spots before punching him.  He stepped away from his father as if he had seen a warning printed on Martin’s face, telling him to keep a safe distance.  He stepped away from his father as if he’d just learned he carried an infectious disease.  He stepped away from his father as if he did not recognize him.  He stepped away from his father as if he’d decided he was an imposter.  He stepped away from his father as if he were a commander who meant to make his own army retreat.  He stepped away from his father as if he were goose stepping for Hitler.  He stepped away from his father as if he were trying to stop his legs from running.  He stepped away from his father as if trying to control some violent impulse in his limbs.  He stepped away from his father as if he were frightened of Martin’s breath.  He stepped away from his father as if he was avoiding a chasm opening suddenly in the floor between them.  He stepped away from his father as if he had mis-stepped and immediately regretted his inattention.  He stepped away from his father as if he’d seen something in Martin’s eyes that would destroy a small village.  He stepped away from his father as if he were groping for a hidden rifle.  He stepped away from his father as if he were drawing to one corner of the boxing ring.  He stepped away from his father as if he smelled cyanide and would be dead upon contact.  He stepped away from his father as if he were avoiding deadly arrows that whizzed in the space between them.  He stepped away from his father as if he belonged to a different caste. He stepped away from his father as if he were a bitter enemy.  He stepped away from his father as if he had just finished inviting him to a duel.  He stepped away from his father as if he were seceding from the northern United States.  He stepped away from his father as if he had just denounced a monarch for treason.

This exercise will also save you from lines like “he towered over her like the grim reaper.”  Your first five stabs at metaphor might be cliché or flat or too extreme.  That’s why writing out several of them helps.

And the ones you like can be kept for later use.  I might keep my “different caste” line for a different conversation between Martin and his son, because I like it.

If you don’t have a copy of The Writer’s Portable Mentor, I recommend getting yourself one and doing as many of the exercises in it as possible.  There are lots of them, and they are great.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I love metaphors! One of my favorite authors – Steinbeck – uses them constantly, though he is as straightforward a writer as any.

    It was very interesting to see your process in writing. Thank you.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you find it helpful. Metaphors make language powerful by giving us something we understand to help us grasp something more difficult to comprehend.

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