• 5 Tips for Creating Metaphors (Which Are Like Similes) advice creative writing Metaphor writing blog yeah write ©YW2012 creative writing blog creative writing website creative writing advice writing website yeahwriters •

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!

© Yeah Write 2012

This was originally posted in July but I thought it deserved a round 2.

1414 notes / 7 years 5 months ago
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. Befor...
No Plot, No Problem: How to Write Without A Clue Where it's Going
Now, I’ve been talking a lot in the past few weeks about planning novels and I just want to remind everyone, novels don’t necessarily need to be planned! Not at all. In fact, a good number of writers hate planning. It’s completely understandable. I don’t blame ‘um. So, ...
Writing Tips #168:How to Make the Reader Give A Damn.
Tips by: NaomiOriginally posted on: Confessions of an Opinionated Book Geek. Here’s the thing about Harry Potter. Sure, the magic is great, the villain frightening and the action hard to look away from. But, do you know what really made J.K. Rowling’s series sell billions of copies? We...
Write your first draft with your heart. Rewrite with your head.
writing creative writing writing tips writing advice writing help writer-blood
How to Plot A Complex Novel in One Day (It WILL take all day)
Now first, I have to say, that the plot you’re able to come up with in one day is not going to be without its flaws, but coming up with it all at once, the entire story unfolds right in front of you and makes you want to keep going with it. So, where to begin? What is your premise and basic pl...
Focusing on the Middle of Your Novel
Many writers worry about developing the middle of their novel or they simply lose motivation when they start thinking about what to write about. Even if you know the beginning and end of your novel, it can be difficult to connect the two and build an exciting plot inbetween. The best way to begin ta...
Character Voice Consistency
Keeping a character’s voice consistent throughout a book can be a challenge. There are a multitude of factors to maintaining a character’s voice. Keep in mind that as the character develops, the voice doesn’t change. A character’s voice at its core can best be described as a character’s personality....
Writing Tips #96: How To Write A War or Battle Scene in Your Novel
Tips by Stephanie J. Hale Originally posted on stephaniejhale.wordpress.com Writing about war in a novel can seem pretty daunting – especially if you haven’t experienced it yourself. War may be the main theme of your book; or war may be a just small part of your story. Even if you haven’t had dire...
Fight Write: A Basic Upper Body Primer (Open Hand)
In this post we’ll be talking about open hand strikes, how they work and what they do. While closed hand strikes are more popular in fiction, the ones working with the open hand are also important. We’ll start by talking about the advantages and disadvantages of the open hand, and then try to give s...
Let's Talk Sub-Plots and Character Arcs: Time to Work on Character
Now, if you’ve read my post “How to Plot A Complex Novel in One Day,” here’s your next step. It’s character day! Now let’s think about those characters you came up with. You know a little bit about them, but now let’s look deeper, get them more rounded out s...
books creative writing authors Editing writers writing tips writing advice manuscript novels publishing first draft