Everyone Loves a Metaphor—But What if the Metaphor Doesn’t Love You Back?
March 24, 2023 § 6 Comments
Sometimes a metaphor isn’t gonna help.
By Peter Mountford
As a writing instructor and coach, I encounter many people starting in their writing life who are positively smitten with metaphors, similes, and figurative language. It’s understandable. But figurative language only really works at all when it works really well. At its worst you get cliches, or you get something like:
Gary was so tall that being near him was like standing beside a giant.
Does this mean he’s twenty feet tall? Or . . . what does it mean? It can get worse:
Gary was a redwood tree of a man.
Now I really have no idea how tall he is. I’m just confused. And an inapt metaphor, more often than not, creates confusion.
At best, metaphors can express something that isn’t perfectly available through the literal description.
Note: I use the term “metaphor” casually to cover what we often consider metaphor and simile. Last year, Ocean Vuong caught a lot of heat after a similar conflation. A simile usually involves the word “like, or “as” while a metaphor doesn’t. But if it’s okay, I’ll mostly just say metaphor as the umbrella term because “figurative language” is cumbersome.
Sorry (not sorry)! These things—analogy, too!—do roughly similar work.
The Perfect Metaphor
To be clear, I swoon over Lorrie Moore’s prose, carpet-bombed as it is with all manner of metaphors. Often, she stretches a metaphor well past the breaking point, to the ridiculous and absurd:
People talking were meant to look at a face, the disastrous cupcake of it, the hide-and-seek of the heart dashing across.
It works partly because it’s Lorrie Moore, and she’s having so much damn fun that we’re just pleased to join her. Never mind that she’s dropped a triply-or-more mixed metaphor. This face is a cupcake playing hide and seek. The heart—that chest organ pumping blood—is dashing across the face, which is a cupcake? Or maybe the heart is a cupcake?
Certain writers break rules well, and it’s a great pleasure to watch. The rest of us proceed with a modicum of caution.
The sunset is one of those everyday events that tend to devolve to cliches, with descriptions of the sun as one more “fiery orb” or fireball or runny yolk, but it can be done:
The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid near and nearer the sill of the world. —William Golding, Lord of the Flies
Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. ― Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Layers of orange like a buttermilk pie cooling on the horizon. ― Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead
Back to tired metaphors, briefly, we grab cliches because we’re tired and don’t want to do the dirty work of digging up our own buried treasure—errr, let me work on that one. Still, you might be tempted to let the cliches rip:
Opal wears her heart on her sleeve, a real open book. She carries a torch for Archie, who eats like a horse, swims like a fish, and is eagle-eyed.
Still, even if Archie is a chimera Opal cooked up in her home bioweapons lab, it’s just not helpful.
When to avoid or use metaphors
Sometimes a metaphor isn’t gonna help, in moments of physical intensity—violence and sex, for example, or sporting events. The reader’s just trying to understand what is literally happening in the scene.
Still, metaphors are often great for characterization. In her new novel I Have Some Questions for You, Rebecca Makkai writes:
The boy is wiry and alert, always tilted forward, looking for his next wisecrack like an animal watching for prey.
Not flashy, but it’s evocative, different, and makes sense. Metaphors act powerfully in the hands of witty or erudite narrators because they often reflect the narrator’s arch or knowing mind.
If your metaphor lands a bit flat, try something vivid, visual, and specific. Something telling us about the observer while dishing on what’s observed:
Gary was so tall I worried for his skull every time he walked through a doorway.
Gary was so tall I was always aware of the unruly situation with his nose hairs—a natural hazard for people of his stature.
We can hear empathetic narrator’s worry or fastidiousness.
I’ve come to believe that with figurative language, if it’s even slightly out of place or not apt, it won’t work. Better to go without than have it askew. Metaphors need to click in perfectly.
Writing coach and developmental editor Peter Mountford is the author of the novels A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism (Washington State Book Award), and The Dismal Science (NYT editor’s choice). His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Southern Review, The Atlantic, The Sun, NYT (Modern Love), Granta, and The Missouri Review. Peter teaches at the MFA program at the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe.
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Tagged: Lorrie Moore, metaphors, writing craft
This was really fun and useful. Thank you!
Thank you. Sometimes the figurative language becomes thick and distracting, a burlesque show in a baroque bedroom—too much sparkly decoration, as if thousands of colorful extra words were sticky and had been thrown against the walls to obscure the story. [I could have abstained, but I chose not to.]
“Gary was so tall he automatically tipped his head down and to the side every time he walked through a doorway.”
I like the reminder to bring in the observer’s personality. I’m reading Zoe Heller’s masterpiece of a novel, “What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal” (made into a movie with Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench). The older woman is the narrator and every simile and metaphor is dripping with her acerbic and witty perspective and it characterizes not just her but also the posh younger woman, Sheba …Example–Sheba doesn’t understand the lower/middle class folks. She falls for a teenaged student (Connolly) from that lower class and is impressed. Heller writes: “Poor old Sheba regarded Connolly with much the same amazement and delight as you and I would a monkey who strolled out of the rain forest and asked for a gin and tonic.”
This was a fun read. I do struggle with inserting metaphors into sentences. My first attempt inevitably results in an obvious, cliched comparison. A third or fourth try yields something a bit more interesting. It’s timing consuming work. I envy all who can do it well.