Tuesday, December 12

Writing 2: Using Simile And Metaphor Effectively in Writing

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 One thing every writer should know about is similes and metaphors.

Everybody knows what a simile is; it’s a literary trope that uses the word “like:”

       “She was soft and fuzzy like a little mouse.”

     “He bounced around the room like an indoor thunderstorm.”

     “Her gait was like that of an overburdened camel.”

Those are not particularly good examples. The best similes are fresh, original and applicable to the situation:

     “I appreciate a hard body and all that, but hugging her was like hugging a brick outhouse.”

     “The way he spoke, it sounded exactly like a grizzly popping its jaws.”

     “She’s like a Xerox machine stuck on ‘go’, the lies just keep pouring out of her.”

I’ve never had a problem with similes; I’ve written any number of fairly good ones, like those just above. But metaphor? I’ve always had trouble with metaphor, couldn’t seem to get my mind around what it is, how it is used, and in particular, how I might use it to improve my writing.

The best definition I’ve come across is from Sheldon Kopp’s book Guru: Metaphors from a Psychotherapist, “

According to Kopp, a metaphor is a type of speaking in which one thing is expressed in terms of another. Bringing these together allows the reader to see the character or whatever is being described in a new and different way.

In other words, symbolic language. I understand symbols – the American flag (love of country), Smoky the Bear (fire safety), the Smiley Face (have a good day”). In her book Suicide, Kay Redfield Jamieson hits on a winner from the game of chess – she and a friend are jointly pledging that should either of them ever seriously contemplate suicide, they would first call the other for help and support:  She and her friend, both depressive and suicidal, would, outmaneuver the Black Knight, and force him from the table.

Something went off in my head – so that’s what they mean by metaphor! She could as easily have said, “We’d keep suicide away by this method,” but how dull and mundane!  Who would applaud that, much less remember it? I know I’ll never look at a chess knight again without remembering their pledge.

“They’re going down for the third time on the mortgage.” This is a bit of a cliché,  but using it in this instance brings freshness and originality to the image.

Metaphors plant images in the reader’s mind, and those images carry emotions. Who ever looks upon Smoky the Bear without visualizing a roaring forest fire, and feeling a slight frisson of fear? Metaphors make the prose lively and interesting: instead of the words lying static on the page, they interact with readers: a constant interplay, images springing off the page to the reader’s mind, the reader’s mind going back to the material fully engaged and better understanding the meaning due to the associations provided.

One metaphor following close upon the heels of another would dilute the impact of all. Metaphors should be sprinkled through the prose sparingly, interspersed with plain prose.

     “Her voice a rusty hinge, grating on the nerves.”

     “We can get there quick as birds fly.”

     “Our landlord isn’t a human being, he’s a cash register in disguise.”

In coming up with metaphors to enliven your writing, discard the first three or four things you think of, as they are bound to be clichés. Go on to the 5th, or 6th , to ensure your metaphors will be fresh and original.  The two parts of the simile or metaphor should bear some resemblance; the closer the resemblance, the more striking and memorable the trope. “Her clothes flowed around her like tires coming off the assembly line” is a poor simile for obvious reasons. An assembly line may be effectively used when speaking of a ride over a bumpy road, but it will not do for clothes.

A descriptive metaphor describes one thing in terms of another: “The trees tossed their juggling branches,” “My mind, a lost boat upon a cruel sea,” “Her boots clattering castanets against the sidewalk.”

An abstract metaphor describes an abstract concept in terms of a concrete thing: ““Love, the blooming rose,” “Time, the great healer.”

An embedded metaphor has to do with perception. “The man in the moon smiled at me.” Of course there is no man in the moon, much less smiling at anyone. This type of metaphor may be used to convey contentment, satisfaction, or the like.

A mixed metaphor blends two metaphors together: “He grasped the bull by the horns and stepped up to the plate.” Such metaphors are often nonsensical.

An absolutemetaphor is one that fails to make a connection between two things: “The kitchen is the space shuttle of the house.”

Depending on whom you ask, there may be other kinds of metaphors, but these are the most common ones. For further information, turn to your search engine.

Understanding simile and metaphor and using them effectively will improve your writing no end. Go ahead – Try it!


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