Like A Barrel Of Metaphors

Okay, today we are going to talk about metaphors and similes, together*. Metaphors and similes are a powerful part of your writing, because they help build up the feeling the reader has about your work by associating your characters, settings, and actions with images the reader already has feelings about.

(*) The difference: a simile uses a direct comparison, as in “he ran as fast as a cheetah,” and therefore usually uses the words “like” or “as.” A metaphor uses associated words to create the image, as in “he ran with great loping strides and feral intensity.”

But in order to be effective, metaphors and similes should be unified, and used judiciously. Don’t compare something to something in every sentence, and don’t just throw out whatever random comparisons you think of. Here’s a famous example from a song I had cause to think of again recently:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Now, this is a song, so everything is more compressed, and Dylan goes on to other metaphors in the next verses, but look at how beautifully everything comes together in this one. Public opinion is rising like a flood–soon you’ll be ‘drenched to the bone’ in it–and if you don’t adapt (“start swimming”), you’ll be left behind (“sink like a stone”).

In prose, you don’t generally want to hammer a metaphor home this hard. A little goes a long way. But you do want to look at the unity of theme. Imagine in the above if Dylan had looked at each of those aspects individually, and had thought, “Well, public opinion is spreading like a wildfire. What’s happening, like the weather, affects everyone, even if you can sort of hide from it for a bit. And as society moves forward, like in a big marathon race, the people who can’t keep up will be left behind.” Each of those is a valid metaphor in its own right, but put them together and you just get confusion. Using the same image throughout for the same things gives your prose power**.

Don’t overuse it, but don’t be afraid of it. Understand the comparisons you’re making and think them through, and you’ll add depth and meaning to your prose.

(**) Vary the words you’re using, of course. Those of you familiar with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will no doubt remember that the word “toad” is used in conjunction with Dolores Umbridge approximately ten million times over the course of that book, and even though Rowling does occasionally mix it up with words like “squatting,” which evoke toads without directly calling them, it is a fairly limited metaphor and it gets beaten into the ground. If she’d been able to link it to other themes in the book, it would have worked a little better, but it doesn’t jive well with Voldemort’s snake imagery, and nobody else is really compared to animals much, so it sticks out.

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