Monday, January 28, 2013

How to be a Master of Metaphor

Nothing makes a piece of writing sparkle like a good metaphor. Well-crafted metaphors and similes are the RPGs of diction; destroyers of boredom, exploding munitions of meaning.

What is "metahpor"? defines it as "a figure of speech in which an expression is used to refer to something that it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity." I like to think of it in simpler terms: enlisting a vivid image in service of description. Diction's lubricant. The rib-spreader that exposes a writer's true heart.

What is "simile"? A metaphor in drag; a metaphor with the word "like" in it. Nothing more.

A simile is like a white lie; you're telling the reader that Thing A is like Thing B, even though in a literal sense, the two are not the same. A metaphor, on the other hand, is a pretend-lie. You're calling one thing something else entirely. Stephen Colbert explains it this way: "What's the difference between a metaphor and a lie? Okay, I am the sun, you are the moon. That's a lie. You're not the moon."

What makes a good metaphor (or simile) good?

  • Simple and clear: A good metaphor is vivid, useful, concise, and (when successful) memorable. An elaborate, baroque, overworked, or otherwise wordy metaphor topples under its own weight.
  • Highly visual, if possible: Concrete language that evokes a clear mental image is always a good idea, for any kind of writing.
  • Original: Not lame, not something anybody has used before.
  • Unexpected, perhaps even shocking: A good metaphor doesn't leave the reader dumbstruck; it leaves her Tasered in the nipples. It's a subversion of expectation.
  • Not mixed: An inconsistent image destroys, not augments, meaning.
  • Parallel in tone with whatever you're describing: If you're describing weird, produce a metaphor that's weird. If you're describing upbeat, be sure the metaphor is upbeat. You're not just denoting imagery; you're conveying tone. Or should be.
  • Entertaining: The reader should smile, maybe even laugh.

Sometimes it doesn't hurt to inject a bit of absurdity. One time, I overheard somebody talking about the dangerously worn-out tires on his car. He spoke of tires that "were so bald you could drive over a dime and tell if it was heads or tails." I'd never heard that expression before. It stayed with me.

Examples of Hackneyed Metaphors and Similes

  • "[to] rise head and shoulders [above something]": Thoroughly overused.
  • "Music to my ears": Horrible.
  • "Two peas in a pod": Offal.
  • "Heart of stone": Nauseating.
  • "The light of my life": Cloying.
  • "Raining cats and dogs": How about raining llamas and dromedaries? Anything but housepets.
  • "[our culture is a] melting pot." How about "a sumptuous ethnic ragout"?
  • "Sank like a stone": The essence of trite.
  • "[He or she turned] white as a sheet." OMG please no.
  • "He was awkward; all knees and elbows": No longer original. Try something like: "He was awkward, all knees and elbows, like a newborn giraffe."

Metaphor: Good Examples

  • "Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket." George Orwell
  • "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life." Pablo Picasso
  • "Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." William Wordsworth
  • "Courage is grace under pressure." Ernest Hemingway
  • "The night wind was a torrent of purple darkness." Unknown
  • "I tom-peeped across the hedges of years, into wan little windows." Vladimir Nabokov
  • "A bland agenda. Political meatloaf." (Yours truly)
  • "A wicker basket weighed down with half-rotted ideas." (Yours truly)

Simile: Good Examples

  • "The air smelled sharp as new-cut wood, slicing low and sly around the angles of buildings." Joanne Harris
  • "The dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke." John Steinbeck
  • "Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa." Vladimir Nabokov
  • "There was a quivering in the grass which seemed like the departure of souls." Victor Hugo
  • "His face was deathly pale, and the lines of it were hard like drawn wires." Bram Stoker
  • "To live anywhere in the world today and be against equality because of race or colour is like living in Alaska and being against snow." Unknown

It's surprising how many people quote Margaret Mitchell's little suck-ass line about Scarlett meeting Rhett as an example of a beautiful simile: "The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key." First of all, "the very [sight, mystery, image, etc.] of [something]" is a repugnantly arch construction. But more to the point: A door that has neither lock nor key is just your average door, isn't it? Most doors have neither lock nor key. It seems Scarlett got easily excited by a cheap, lockless door. (My kind of woman.)

Tomorrow, I'm going to continue on this subject with some examples of truly humorous metaphors and similes drawn from that inexhaustible well of preposterous nonsense, student essays. Don't miss tomorrow's post. You'll be sorry as a whore in church if you do.