Metaphorically speaking

Remember those old black and white movies, often romances, when everything was suggested or implied and nothing of a sexual nature was actually seen on screen? Probably a bit before your time. Everything is so much more explicit these days; nothing is left to the imagination. But you know the sort of thing I mean – the suggestion of a sexual encounter using a visual metaphor. For example: the couple on the train taking advantage of their otherwise empty carriage, look longingly into each other’s eyes, maybe a furtive kiss before they pull down the blinds. Then we cut to the train entering a tunnel.

Like I said: probably before your time.

We can take a leaf out of the film director’s book and use metaphor to enrich our writing. A metaphor is a figure of speech, used, along with its stable mates simile and analogy to make a comparison between unrelated objects, actions and situations in order to imply a resemblance for explanatory, illustrative or ornamental purposes. The terms metaphor and simile are often bandied around as if they mean exactly the same thing. They don’t. There are subtle differences. A simile is a form of metaphor, but not all metaphors are similes. Got all that? Me neither, so let’s unpick the differences.

  • Simile

A simile is a form of metaphor that compares two different things to create a new meaning. It is more explicit and literal than a metaphor; it uses the word like or as to make a comparison. It is more immediate, likening a person or a scene to something that denotes an attribute such as size, strength, or the number of cigarettes they smoke: as big as a house; as strong as an ox; smokes like a chimney.

  • Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech that uses one thing to mean another and       makes a comparison between the two. It is a condensed simile, a shortcut to meaning, which omits as and like. A metaphor creates a direct relationship but leaves more to the imagination, transferring the sense of one word to another. With simile A is like B; with metaphor A is B. You are my sunshine; he is a pig; all the world’s a stage. A good metaphor should be seamless; invisible to the reader unless they’re looking for it.

  • Analogy

An analogy is comparable to metaphor and simile in that it shows how two different things are similar. Analogy is often used to help provide insight by comparing an unknown subject to one that is more familiar. It can also show a relationship between pairs of things by pointing out shared characteristics. An analogy is usually a lot longer than either a simile or metaphor because it’s being used to compare one situation to another. Unlike a metaphor, it won’t be a direct statement, and unlike a simile, it won’t be a simple comparison.

Writing as all about painting pictures and these guys can help. But we have to be ready to play with language and ideas. Metaphors, similes and analogies can not only make our writing more interesting but also help us to think more carefully about our subjects. They make comparisons but these aren’t to be taken literally. They are figurative statements designed to add depth to the description. To pull the wool over someone’s eyes doesn’t mean literally pull their woolly hat down over their face so they can’t see; it’s a metaphor that paints the picture that somehow the view of the person is interfered with. Pulling wool over that person’s eyes is a figurative illustration that the person’s vision is clouded.

But we need to proceed with caution. Many similes and metaphors have been used so often that they have become clichés. We use them in speech, but we should avoid these overworked phrases at all costs in our writing. Using an expression that has been overused can have a negative effect. To have impact, our metaphors and similes needs to be original or unique to the idea we’re trying to convey.

So, which to use? A metaphor carries more power than a simile, because it’s direct. Using like or as to make a comparison will often weaken the vivid imagery you’re trying to create. But an appropriate and original metaphor will spark instant understanding for a reader, without the elaboration that an analogy requires.

The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor – Aristotle


10 thoughts on “Metaphorically speaking

  1. Your posts are pathways to knowledge. That’s my metaphor for today, and a genuine one at that. I always enjoy reading what you have to say, and often learn something in the process. A good combination for sure. 🙂

  2. Oh, heck, I can’t compete with Carrie’s great metaphor! So I won’t even try. 🙂 I’ll just say simply that your posts are always educational and interesting. And that’s the truth.

    Honestly, I don’t think I have any metaphors or similes in my WIPs….

  3. I love using metaphors and similes and all kinds of creative license in my writing. But I tend toward a prose-like narrative anyway, where such writing tools thrive.

    I do struggle with trying not to sound cliche. Lots of times I will know that a specific moment calls for a metaphor, for instance, and perhaps nothing original comes to mind immediately. So, I stick in a cliche but I highlight it to remind me to go back upon revision and work really hard to come up with something fresh. It is not easy, and I’m not even sure I pull it off sometimes. But I can’t resist them. 🙂

  4. I was thinking about saying that metaphors and similes are much like clouds and rain in the way that they often add texture and fluff the writing. However, too many clichés will drown even the best of work. On another note: You should not avoid cliché at all cost, but rather find your own balance of cliché that does not overpower your work. Using too many, or a too well-known, overused cliché will often result in laughable work that will result in a reader shaking their head. It’s more common, in some writing, to see clichés that have been reworked in order to appear as a cliché with a hint of joke. Such as Shakespeare’s To Be or Not To Be; that is the question; if it’s written ‘To Be or To Not Be…’ or, even ‘To Write or To Not Write…’ there will be something useful and a grin will likely result, while still being unique to the writer who wrote it, though it stemmed from an overused piece of prose. So, cliché is still able to help and to power a piece of writing, but the writer must use caution when applying such methods.

    Also, I must include that this piece speaks volumes. I’m sure you’ve helped to clear up a few clouds in the mind of many readers by sharing these pieces of wisdom, and I thank you.

    • Thank you for your sensible advice. Cliches can be very helpful in descriptions, condensing lots of words into one pithy saying that is universally understood – and that’s the temptation, using the tried and tested rather than looking for something new and fresh. That will always be our challenge.

  5. Pingback: Metaphor: Why, yes, it IS! | Many Little Drops

  6. Pingback: Imagine Yourself Relaxing on a Beach Without a Care in the World « Presenting Yourself and more . . .Presenting Yourself and more . . .

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