5 Tips for Creating Metaphors (Which Are Like Similes)
Aaaah, metaphors: they can be a writer’s best friend, or worst enemy (see what I did there?). When done well, they can add a whole other dimension to your writing. But you can’t necessarily just compare sadness to road kill and be on your merry way. Metaphor creation is a honed writing skill.
Before we hop to the 5 tips, let’s learn some terminology with the help of our buddy John Green, and our favorite metaphor from Looking for Alaska:
“So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.”
The best definition of a metaphor that I could come up with based on others I read was “a comparison that shows how two mostly dissimilar things are alike in a contextually important way”. So though people are not drops of water who fall from the sky, we learn that Miles feels “subdued” compared to Alaska, because we know how drizzle relates to a hurricane.
Metaphors have two parts: a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor is the actual thing being described—in the above quote, people, Miles, and Alaska are tenors. The vehicle is what the tenors are being compared to: rain, drizzle, and a hurricane, respectively.
Okay! Now that we’ve got that down, let’s get this show on the road:
1. Don’t overuse them
I once had this classmate in a fiction course who was basically born to write metaphors. She was amazing. They were all so evocative and clever, and I envied her. Just one problem: she probably had about two or three in every paragraph. We all know the ol’ cliché, “Too much of anything is a bad thing”. I started getting too distracted by her metaphors (because they were so good) and forgetting about the action of the story. It was turning into a metaphor party. As Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. If she’d used them more sparsely, I think they would have packed way more of a punch.
2. Make them appropriate to your subject matter
Something I see a lot of younger (experience-wise) writers do is compare elements of their story to totally random “vehicles”. I read something the other day, I forget where, but it was a first person describing a breakup. The metaphor employed was something to the effect of “it felt like someone had put a cheese grater to my heart”. Okay, I get the comparison: your heart hurts when you go through a breakup. But when I’m reading about something that’s supposed to be sad, do I really want to be interrupted by an image of cheese being grated? Cheese is kind of funny and gross to think about (to me at least, haha). So the comparison didn’t really elicit the emotional response from me that the author was probably going for.
I recall that there was a long period in Looking for Alaska during which it’s raining. I don’t remember if the above metaphor was before or during the rainy period, but I bet it was. There was a reason Green chose rain as his vehicle there.
3. Metaphors are like a subtle psychological probe for your readers
In my opinion, the best metaphors are those that not only use a vehicle to help describe a tenor, but also to add to the story’s overall mood, tone, or theme. Think about it: you have this opportunity to pull in some reference that’s completely unrelated to the actual action of the story (like baby birds in a story about kids… see below). But the image will contribute to the reader’s overall impression of the story, even if he or she is not consciously aware of it.
I also think metaphors are a great way to foreshadow. Say a character is going to get struck by lightning later in your story; you could say “His laugh was electricity, incaptureable as it bounced around the room.” (Not the best example but you get the idea).
I once wrote a story about preteens going cliff jumping that was an allegory for growing up. The narrator meets one of the boys there who she “likes”, and notices “his pointed shoulder blades, like baby birds’ wings” as he takes his shirt off to jump. I was really proud of that simile, because baby birds make me think of jumping out of the nest, so my central ideas—jumping, and growing up—were doubly enforced.
I like how Orson Scott Card put it: “Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.”
4. Avoid cliches and mixed metaphors like the plague! (GET IT!?)
We all want to avoid using cliches, but sometimes it’s hard to delineate between proverbs, metaphors, and common phrases of speech. My basic rule of thumb is to try to describe things in as unique a way as I can. Why say something is “white as snow” when you can do it a new way? That’s what’ll make your writing unique and establish your voice.
Mixed metaphors are basically using two or more unrelated “vehicles” to describe one tenor. For example: “She was a whirlwind, a swift cat who moved like a race car.” Uh… huh?
When in doubt, keep it simple. I usually close my eyes and think about what I want my reader to feel about the tenor—then I try to think of other things that make me feel that way to use as a vehicle. My thought process is something like, “I want to describe that his voice is warm… what is warm… fire… not, too hot… baked potatoes… no, too silly to compare to food… he’s a musician… I know… ‘His voice was like an old song, familiar and and catching.” Sometimes it comes to me easily, but most of the time, it’s hard!
5. Whether a metaphor is “good” or “bad” is subjective
…so don’t over stress. Go with your instincts. Metaphor creation is a subset of the art of writing, and art’s validity and appeal is based on people’s opinions. Maybe you read something, and the vehicle reminds you of a specific memory and it resonates more with you. Maybe you love the cheese grater/heartbreak idea and think my shoulder/baby bird wing simile was stupid. That’s cool. These tips are just what work for me. But, regardless, I hope they were helpful!
Have a dissenting opinion or a tip to add? Send an ask.
Think you wrote a great metaphor/simile, or have a favorite from literature? Submit it and I’ll share it—today can be metaphor day!
This was originally posted in July but I thought it deserved a round 2.