25 Things You Should Know About Metaphor

1. Comparing Two Unlike Things

A metaphor is a little bit of writing magic that allows you, the writer, to draw an unexpected line between two unlike things. You are comparing and connecting things that have no business being compared or connected. How is a wasp like an auto mechanic? A banana like a storm cloud? How do you talk about a nuclear winter while evoking a beautiful symphony? The metaphor is the writer holding up one thing (“a double-headed dildo”) and asking — nay, demanding — that the reader think of something else (“a floppy slice of freshly-baked zucchini bread”). It is a subversion of expectation; a sabotage of imagery. Metaphor is metamorphosis. You can tell that’s true because they both have “meta” and “pho.” Or something.

2. Because Comparing Two Samey Things Is Silly

A metaphor fails if it’s obvious. Comparing two alike things is meaningless in terms of providing engagement and enlightenment to the audience. “That horse is like a donkey” simply isn’t meaningful. We already know that. We describe the things that need describing. You wouldn’t say, “This double-headed dildo is like a single-headed dildo” and call that a metaphor. All you’re doing there is thwacking the audience about the head and neck with your +5 Double-Headed Dildo of Obviousness.

3. Literarily, Not Literally

Further, a metaphor is not to be taken literally. “A snake is like a worm” is literally true, and thus fails as a metaphor. Metaphors operate best as purely figurative. Life is not literally a bowl of cherries. The power of metaphor is in its ability to transcend the real; in this way, metaphor is like an artsy-fartsy version of sarcasm. It is a beautiful lie. I say one thing, but I mean another.

4. Simile Versus Metaphor

A simile uses like or as to connect things; a metaphor eschews both words. Simile: “My love for you is like old lunchmeat. Still here, but way past its expiration date.” Metaphor: “My love for you is a zombie. Dead but still walking around.” The simile creates a little distance; this is like that. Not same, but similar. A metaphor undercuts that distance. This is that. Not just similar, but absolutely (though abstractly) the same.

5. A PhD in Symbology

Metaphors and symbols are not the same thing. A metaphor is stated outright. I say it. I write it. I don’t hide from it. When I say that “her vagina is like the blown-out elastic in a pair of old underpants,” or, “his dick is like soft serve,” I’m not trying to hide what I think or feel. I’m shoving the imagery right into your eyeholes. A symbol is far cagier, far more guarded. A character who symbolizes something (sin, colonialism, addiction, zoo-keepers, reality television) does so in an unspoken way. The author never takes the time to complete that picture. A metaphor draws the line between two unlike things. The symbol never draws the line — it just casually gestures in the direction of the other thing, hoping you’ll connect the dots yourself.

6. Take Literary Viagra To Extend Your Metaphors

A metaphor that kicks open the door to its cage and runs around a little before being put down is an extended metaphor, or a “conceit.” It refuses to be kept to a single iteration, and will get its roots and shoots all up into the paragraph where it initially appeared. The metaphor continues — it’s not enough to say that “urban development is like a cancer” and leave it at that. The metaphor grows and swells, blister-like, using the whole paragraph to explore the metaphor to its fullest: gentrification is metastasis, developers are like free radicals, rich guys like tumors, and so on and so forth.

7. Elegance In Simplicity

Err on the side of simplicity rather than complexity. The weightier and more Byzantine a metaphor becomes, the more likely that it becomes unstable, untenable, overwrought. When I say, “John’s a dinosaur,” the message is clear: he’s old-school, probably too old-school, and if he’s not careful he’s going to get face-punched by a fucking meteor. But I don’t need to say all those things. I don’t need to beat the metaphor into the ground until it’s a pulpy, shitty mess; it’s not a watermelon, and I’m not Gallagher. The audience wants to do work. They want to take the metaphor and help draw the line. Hand them a simple machine, not a Rube Goldberg device.

8. Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge

Some metaphors are implied. When you say, “Gary’s coming for you, Bill — that guy can smell blood in the water from a mile away,” we’re using a metaphor to imply that Gary is a shark, but without actually saying that he’s a shark. The power here is in letting the audience bring a little something to the table. The danger here is you reach too far and fail to make the implication click.

9. Broken Metaphors Are Brick Walls

Some metaphors just don’t work. You maybe think they do, because in your head you’ve drawn a line that makes sense to you and… well, nobody else, you fuckin’ goon. The reader’s sitting there, scratching his head, wondering just what the hell a blue heron has to do with a head cold and what happens is, it stops the reader dead. Every component of your writing is binary — it’s either a 1 or a 0, it’s either Go, Dog, Go, or Guy Running Full Speed Into A Tree. It’s lubricant (facilitates the reader reading), or a fist (forces the reader to stop). A broken metaphor asks the reader to stand over the confounding imagery, chewing on it the way one must jaw hard on a hunk of gristly steak. Make sure you’re not putting out metaphors that are clear to you and only you. Think of the reader, not of the writer.

10. Mixed Metaphors Make Us Throw Red Bull Cans At Your Head

If I wanted to mix metaphors, I might take that love/lunchmeat/zombie metaphor and smoosh those fuckers together: “My love is like a zombie — it’s dead and walking around long past its expiration date.” It’s mixed because it’s in effect creating a metaphor within a metaphor: love is like a zombie, and a zombie is kind of like lunchmeat in that it has an expiration date even though human bodies and zombies don’t usually have expiration dates and love isn’t really a zombie and besides, zombies aren’t real anyway. So, it’s asking the reader to draw the line and say “love = zombie, but zombie = lunchmeat.” It’s not the worst mixed metaphor ever (as one could suggest that a person’s date of death is his ‘expiration date’). You can, of course, get a whole lot worse — the worst ones build off cliches (“Don’t look in the mouth of a upset gift horse of another color before the apple cart or… s… something.”)

11. Cliches Make Me Kick-Stab You Through A Plate Glass Window

Let me define for you: “Kick-stab.” It means I duct tape a diver’s knife to the bottom of my boot, and then I focus all of my chi (or: “ki”) into my kick as I drive my knife-boot into your chest so hard it explodes your heart and fires your ragdoll body through a plate glass window that wasn’t even there before but the force of the kick was so profound it conjured the window from another universe. All this because you had to go and use a cliche. Cliches are lowest common denominator writing and serve as metaphors for unimaginative, unoriginal turd-witted slug-brains. KIYAAAKAPOW *kick* *stab* *krrsssh*

12. Show Us Your Brain

Ew, no, not like that. Put your scrotum back in your pants, you monster. No, what I mean is: metaphors represent an authorial stamp. They’re yours alone, offering us a peek inside your mind. When a reader says, “I would have never thought to compare a sea squirt to the economic revolution of Iceland,” that’s a golden moment. The metaphor is a signature, a stunt, a trick, a bit of your DNA spattered on the page.

13. They Are The Chemical Haze That Creates Unearthly Sunsets

Look at it another way: a sky is a sky is a sky. But when we cast against the sky a chemical haze or the ejecta from a volcanic eruption, it’s like a giant fucking Instagram filter — it changes the sky and gives us heavenward vistas and sunsets or sunrises that are cranked up on good drugs, revealing to us unearthly beauty we never expected to see. The haze or the ejecta are entirely artificial — applied to the sky, not part of the original equation — but it doesn’t matter. That’s metaphor. Metaphor is the filter; it’s a way to elevate the written word (and the world the word explores) to something unexpected, something unseen. Metaphors are always artificial. But that fails to diminish their magic.

14. Hot Mood Injectors

Metaphors do not merely carry tone; they can lend it to a story. The metaphors you choose can capably create mood out of the raw nothing of narrative — a metaphor can be icky, depressing, uplifting, funny, weird, all creating moods that are (wait for it, wait for it), icky, depressing, uplifting, funny, or weird. A metaphor is a mood stamp. A tonal injector. Consistency in the tone of your metaphors is therefore key.

15. Metaphor As Rib-Spreader To Show Us A Character’s True Heart

A metaphor used to describe a character tells us more about the character than a mere physical description — saying a character is gawky is one thing, but then saying he “walks like a chicken with a urinary tract infection” paints for us a far more distinctive and telling portrait. Evoking those things (the chicken, the yellow of urine), suggests cowardice. It also suggests that he probably puts his penis in places he shouldn’t. Like hamster cages and old Pringles cans. Or chickens. #dontfuckchickens

16. Fuck The Police

Metaphor is part of description and we use description when something in the story breaks the status quo — when it violates expectation and so the audience must have a clear picture of it. You don’t talk about every tree in the forest; you describe that one tree that looks different, the twisted old shillelagh where the character’s brother hanged himself. Metaphor operates the same way: you use a metaphor when you want us to know something new, something different. It’s you pointing us to a thing to say, this thing matters.

17. Metaphors Operate By A Beautiful Short Circuit Of The Brain, Part One

Metaphors aren’t just some shit writers invented so they can strut about like pretty purple peacocks. It’s not just a stunt. Metaphors are part of our brains — not just writer’s brains (which are basically rooms where armed chimpanzees force drunken dogs to chase meth-addled cats all day long), but the brains of all humans. Here’s the cool thing about metaphors: our minds know the difference between the real and the metaphorical, and yet, our brains respond to metaphors often the same way they would to reality. You call someone a “dirty bastard,” and our brain pulls the chemical triggers that make us think of, or even feel, a moment’s worth of uncleanliness. How fucking bad-ass is that? THE BRAIN BE STRAIGHT TRIPPIN’, BOO. (Article: “This Is Your Brain On Metaphors.”)

18. Metaphors Operate By A Beautiful Short Circuit Of The Brain, Part Two

Another awesome thing the brain does with metaphors? We’re sitting there, reading, right? And the part of our brain that’s active is the part associated with reading and language. Ahh, but when we encounter a metaphor, our brain short-circuits and leaves that area — it freaks out for a moment, and kung-fu kicks open the door and runs to the area of the brain more appropriate to the sense triggered in the metaphor. In describing a smell or a touch, the brain goes to those areas and highlights that part of your skull’s mental meatloaf. Example: words describing motion highlight your motor cortex. What this means is supremely bad-ass: it means that good description and powerful metaphor are real as real gets. They trick our brain into a reality response! Stupid brains! Ha ha ha, eat a dick, brain! I just fooled you with words! (Article: “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction.”)

19. The Sensory Playground

This tells us then that metaphors should use all senses, not just the visual. Mmkay? Mmkay.

20. Down In The Metaphor Mines

You can stimulate metaphorical thinking. At the simplest level, just make a concerted effort. Walk around, look at things, feel them, smell them, try to envision what those things remind you of — a summer’s day, a calculator watch, a used condom, a wicker basket heavy with roadkill, James Franco. Take one thing and then ask, how is it like another? Find the traits they share, both literal and abstract (hint: it’s the abstract ones that really matter). You can also force such stimulation: sleep or sensory deprivation will do it. So too will the right amount of al-kee-hol (not too much, but not too little, either). Probably the biggest category of “metaphorical stimulator” comes from hallucinogens, which are illegal and you should never do them. BUT IF YOU DO NEGLECT MY ADVICE AND WOLF DOWN A PALM FULL OF FUNNY MUSHROOMS AGAINST MY DOCTORIAL PROHIBITION, you’ll find that your brain makes crazy leaps between things — the very nature of hallucinations is due to the powerful tangling of sensory neurotransmitters (note: not a brainologist). Hallucination is metaphor; metaphor is hallucination.

21. Poe Tray

Another critical way to train your brain to love the metaphor: read poetry. Lots and lots of it. Old and new from every geographic region. Then: write it. Poetry is often a doorway to a metaphorical wonderland. You know what else is a doorway to a metaphorical wonderland? Churros. Mmm. Churros.

22. Profanity Is A Kind Of Metaphor

I want to point this out because, well, me and profanity? We’re buds. We’re bros. We’re in the Fuck Yeah Sisterhood. We went to space camp together and sold Girl Scout Cookies together and lost our virginities togeth… you know, we don’t need to keep talking about that. What I’m saying is, when I say, “Dave is a shithead,” I don’t mean he’s actually got a literal pile of feces roosting on his shoulders. When I say, “Fuck you” in anger, I don’t mean I actually want to fornicate with you. (I mean, probably.) Profanity is abstraction. It’s dirty, filthy, gooey abstraction. And it is wonderful.

23. Metaphor Is A Strong Spice

Don’t overuse metaphor. Every paragraph can’t be a metaphor for another thing — sometimes you just have to say the thing that you want to say without throwing heaps and mounds of abstraction on top of it.

24. Blood Makes The Grass Grow

No, wait, sorry, I mean, “Practice makes perfect.” Silly me! If you’re not particularly comfortable with metaphors, if they make your throat tight and your body tense and cause you to pee two, maybe three drops of scaredy-urine into your Supergirl underoos, you merely need to practice. Sit down. Write metaphors. Let your brain off its chain and see what it comes up with. Write a whole page — hell, a whole fucking book — of the damn things. Nobody’s reading these. No pressure. Care little. Just write.

25. Metaphors Are Part Of An Artistic Frequency

Narrative can, at the basic level, exist in a way where it tells us what has happened or is happening. Right? It serves as a simple explanation, the story being the literal actions taken and words spoken. John went to the grocery store. There he saw Mary. John and Mary kissed by the cantaloupes. John said, “I love you.” Mary Tasered him in the nipples. John died. Mary took his shoes. Whatever. But our storytelling can have levels that go above and below our words, that exist outside the literal flow of events and dialogue spoken. We have subtext. We have authorial intent. We have theme and symbol. And, drum roll please, we have metaphor. Metaphor elevates our narrative. Subtext is an invisible layer but metaphor is very visible, indeed: with metaphor we’re adding new colors to the sensory and experiential wavelength. This is why we use metaphor: to elevate storytelling to more than just the story told.

43 comments

  • This is a great “25 things,” Chuck! I think the number one most frequently given bit of advice I hand off to my crit partners is to go ahead and commit to that metaphor, let it move in and take up space.

    I’m definitely bookmarking this one for future reference. :)

  • Wow. That was truly educational. The neuroscience support of fiction rocks my world, too. I love metaphors, but I see some that just don’t work from newer writers. It’s tricky to explain to someone who doesn’t seem to get it why certain metaphors don’t work. “His mouth was as dry as scorched toast.” I just couldn’t stop thinking that the inside of his mouth was black and crunchy and HOLY HELL, SHOULDN’T HE BE GOING TO THE ER? Also, love love love the binary analogy. That’s exactly right. I had never limited it to just those two options. I shall quote you like mad in the future on this. Okay… I guess so let’s see… Chuck Wendig: Shoots guns? Check. Has a monster named after him in a video game? Check. Knows what irony is? Check. Takes no prisoners? Check. Can implement a metaphor at twenty paces? Double check. Is not afraid to say ‘vagina’? Check. This list is getting endless, man. You’re need to stop being so awesome or you and I are going to have words. heh.

  • It’s nice to know there’s someone out there who’ll understand when I describe something as being like “taking a comfortable shit”, it’s a positive metaphor.

  • The problem with #20, metaphors created under altered mental states, is that sometimes they’re only comprehensible while in that state. Out from under it, sometimes not so much. I found the note of a brilliant thought I had as I was waking up. I think it says “iguana algae spins salsa”. It meant something at the time, but damned if I can connect with the meaning now.

    • @Peter:

      I am of the opinion that all similes are metaphors, though not all metaphors are similes.

      Do with that as you will.

      And, to be honest, pedants do get me down. I find pedantry wildly unpleasant. #truestory

      – c.

  • “+5 Double-Headed Dildo of Obviousness”
    Best. Munchkin set. Ever. Or maybe most disturbing.

    Thank you for this post. I’m always a bit gunshy when it comes to simile and metaphor. I can spot ‘em and appreciate them in other peoples’ work, but I’m never confident when it comes to my own. (Not that I don’t use them, but more, I put one down and immediately think, “does this actually work, or is it a darling that needs murdering?”)

  • I love metaphors. When I read a particularly good one it makes me smile and give the author a mental high-five (or fist-bump or whatever the kids are doing these days). The really do elevate a narrative to another level entirely.

    A great book is “I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like” by Mardy Grothe. It’s full of quotes from famous people that utilize metaphor.

  • I admit I get a little sweaty palmed around metaphors. I feel like the dorky girl hoping the cute jock will ask her to prom…but, if he does, she’ll probably end up with a bucket of blood on her head.

  • “Every component of your writing is binary… It’s lubricant (facilitates the reader reading), or a fist (forces the reader to stop).”

    Last I checked there are people who do use lubricant on their fists, and somehow that works. Maybe it is similar to the moments where you throw the book at the wall in frustration, only to pick it up again because you MUST finish it.

  • I find metaphors to be either hit or miss. I read one book by a very successful author, and loved the story, but the overuse of metaphors ensured I’d probably never read anything else he wrote.

    In contrast another author used them even more, and I never noticed them until I started looking.

    I’m a fan of Old Time Radio, particularly the hard boiled detective shows. They all use metaphors, and some some do it very well. There was one show that used them in a way that so off the wall, I have no clue what they were trying to say.

    Finally, here’s a short video of a brilliantly executed song using very poor simile and metaphor choices.

  • Chuck,

    I love you stuff. I am relatively new to the site and can’t seem to get enough.

    Real quick:

    Am I to understand that a simile is LIKE a metaphor? Whereas, a metaphor is a AK-47 loaded with 3,000 rounds of marshmallow bullets with the intent of firing at a twelve year-old diabetic?

    Yeah, I guess metaphors rock.

    Thanks for the extra scoop of mind sprinkles.

    -E

  • Thanks for pointing out that similes set the two things being compared side by whereas a metaphor should merge them into one thing. I like that. But some metaphors can be a bit implicit too, like a mongoose circling a cobra or the moon orbiting the earth. I tend to mix mine free-writing (heart) then notice them later while editing (head). Sometimes I miss the mix and cringe when I see the thing in print. Thanks for your blog. Appreciate it.

    ~Bill

  • June 3, 2013 at 12:05 PM // Reply

    That’s what I did. I used metaphors, parables, jokes, stories, fiction, nonfiction, used photos, music, poetry, my previous written drawing of artwork, memories, lies and people went INSANE! And I did it because I was bored. I was thinking about dumping a professional career as an RN due to yet again workplace abuse. Which led to workplace violence. And these people were very violent people. Lower life forms of primitive primate. These people would attack children. What were these people thinking that did not stop these people from attacking me? Anyway, I have these books that I have written. And I don’t want to share my work any further. Yet, when I spoke to a publisher they wanted my entire book. And I felt that I needed to protect my interest and did not share it. I agree with Bill, I do mix heart and head, emotion and contempt. My writing apparently angers people. And that was bizarre to me. I have every right not to agree with someone. I have a more informed opinion than they even do. Can I be morphed off this planet? I am definitely not of this planet! I am way too defiant. I have my own intellectual mind and do not agree with many people. I am an individual that has the brilliance that they lack. Therefore, are you people with a creative writing mind all attacked? All due to peoples lack of comprehension?

  • June 3, 2013 at 12:08 PM // Reply

    I am one of those naughty women. Me badass. Now they can all see themselves for what they are as psychopaths.

  • I believe the proper use of loose metaphors is appropriate if introduced correctly. But i use analogy for this mostly in my scientific writing. For example, in my studies, i find parallels between waves bashing up against an island and the study of black holes, or the “similarity” between earthquakes, and the brain and the battle over ideas that this world has killed itself over. Tectonic plates are at some point in equilibrium, and then something happens, and up and down, left and right we go, until it settles itself to quiescence. Must keep an open mind.

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