How to Write a Metaphor
A. Avoid Clichés
My day was emotionally jolting.
With Cliché Metaphor:
My day was an emotional roller-coaster.
Here and there, clichés are harmless, but they can start to add up and become repetitive and unoriginal if you use too many of them. Don’t worry about this as long as you use the clichés sparingly.
Here are a few more examples of metaphors that have become clichés:
- Ticking time bomb
- Tip of the iceberg
- Slippery slope
- Going the extra mile
- Early bird
- Icy personality
- Turning in one’s grave
- About to explode (from anger)
B. Tips on Forming Creative Metaphors
The real trick, though, is to write original metaphors that really stick in the reader’s mind, and there’s no hard-and-fast rule for accomplishing this. It takes a lot of creativity to write a good metaphor!
One way to practice is to start with the phrase “life is…and I am…” By starting with one metaphor (for life) and extending it to yourself, you can practice thinking systematically about the meanings of your metaphors, while at the same time working on your creative skills.
Life is a canvas, and I am a painter.
Life is a canvas, and I am the paint.
Life is an hourglass, and I am a single grain of sand.
Life is an hourglass, and I am about to turn it over once more.
Life is a classroom, and I am sitting in the front row.
Life is a classroom, and I am sitting in the back row.
Notice how different these statements are, and how different they all are from a cliché.
C. Avoid mixed metaphors
This is an important point for using metaphors in your writing – once you’ve decided on a metaphor, you have to see it through for it to have the strongest effect. Don’t just forget about it and pick up a new metaphor immediately! Too many different metaphors in your writing can make it confusing or too over the top.
A mixed metaphor combines one or more metaphors in a sentence in a way that doesn’t really make sense. For example, imagine if you tried to encourage your staff to excel with a project by saying “let’s get back out on the court and hit this one out of the park!” You’d be combining a basketball metaphor with a baseball metaphor—really, you should say “let’s get back out on the field and hit this one out of the park!”
Here’s an example of a triple mixed metaphor:
Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud. (Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner)
First, we have the common metaphor “I smell a rat,” to describe a person committing a betrayal. But then Garner uses an unrelated metaphor to describe him as “floating,” finally concluding with a metaphor that refers to plants.
When to Use Metaphor
Strictly speaking, metaphors should be used only in creative writing since they rely on figurative language (not literal meaning) and are therefore untrue statements. Metaphors are also often vague and may sound too colloquial for formal work. Sometimes a subtle metaphor will slip into formal work(especially in the form of common phrases and clichés). This is OK now and then, but it’s best to avoid it if possible.
For example, if you were writing a paper on Abraham Lincoln, it would sound pretty strange to say he had a “heart of gold.” First of all, it’s a cliché. Second, it’s not literally true. And third, it doesn’t really tell you much about Lincoln. So, it’s better to say something more specific and concrete, like “For Lincoln, compassion was one of the most important moral virtues.”
There is a rhetorical device though (that people often confuse with metaphor), that you’ll see in formal writing all the time. This is simile. Similes explicitly state that two things are alike, rather than simply equating them as a metaphor does. This can be a very useful way to explain complex ideas:
“The magnetosphere works like a big tinted window, protecting the earth from the sun’s harmful rays while still letting some light and heat pass through.”
“The magnetosphere is a big tinted window…”
Using metaphor, in this case, makes the sentence untrue. But the simile is a helpful tool for clarifying the writer’s point.
None of this, of course, applies to creative writing. In creative writing, metaphors are extremely effective – as long as you don’t mix them!