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Crafting Fabulous Fiction:
Mixing and Matching Metaphors

by Victoria Grossack

Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

December 3, 2015

In this column we will review metaphors, which can enrich and enhance your story. First we will consider definitions, then review examples from literature, then discuss techniques for creating your own. We'll also take a look at mixed metaphors and give examples of when they can be bad, or good, depending on what you are trying to achieve.


What are metaphors? The word "metaphor" is used two different ways, the first definition strictly grammatical, the second definition far more broad:

In Wikipedia we find a precise definition:

A metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies something as being the same as some unrelated thing for rhetorical effect, thus highlighting the similarities between the two. It is therefore considered more rhetorically powerful than a simile. While a simile compares two items, a metaphor may compare or directly equates them, and so does not necessarily apply any distancing words of comparison, such as "like" or "as." A metaphor is a type of analogy and is closely related to other rhetorical figures of speech which achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance -- including allegory, hyperbole, and simile.

The most common example of a metaphor that I have found meeting this strict definition is: "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players" (Shakespeare, As You Like It). Notice how Shakespeare equates "world" and "stage" without use of the word "like."

The second definition given at Merriam-Webster is:

an object, activity, or idea treated as a metaphor: symbol.

In this column, we will be working with the second, much broader definition, as the boundaries are blurry and because many of the principles used in creating a simile or an analogy can be used to create a metaphor. So, a warning: don't use this article to study for an examination on English grammar. Use it, if you do, for coming up with symbols for your story.

Examples of Uses of Metaphors

A picture is worth a thousand words, and examples serve the same purpose.

Titles. Metaphors are used frequently for titles, such as the novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I read this book when I was a kid and I admit that at that point I did not understand the point of the title. Only recently, when I thought about it again, did I realize that the main character, Francie Nolan, was the tree -- she was rooted in one spot; she was sturdy and strong; she offered shelter and a place to roost for all the flighty members of her family.

Foreshadowing. In Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, when the nameless narrator receives an offer of marriage from the handsome, sophisticated, older, wealthy Maximilian de Winter -- something that seems more wonderful than her wildest dream, so incredible that at first she does not even believe him -- she is eating a piece of fruit. The fruit, sweet at first, turns out to be sour, which obviously foreshadows how their lives together will play out. It looks pretty and sweet from the outside, but the actual relationship contains unpleasant surprises.

Symbol of a Character. A metaphor may represent a character or some aspect of that character. Satan is often represented by a snake or a serpent, and is supposed to be twisted or slithery. Spirits and souls are often represented by birds. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit visits Jesus in the form of a dove.

In David Eddings's The Belgariad, he calls Silk rat-faced all the time, and gives that character some of the qualities of a rat. In The Iliad, Hector, prince of Troy, is usually mentioned at the same time as his shiny helmet. In both these cases the rat-faced and the shiny helmet also serve as character tags, to help the reader (listener) or the writer (reciter) remember who exactly the character is, as both epics contain casts of thousands (well, many, many characters). But the symbols do more than that. Silk has rat-like qualities. Hector's gleaming helmet shows that he is a warrior, and the brightest hope of the Trojans.

The Mood Of A Story. In Jane Austen's Emma, when the outlook for the character seems particularly bleak -- Emma has realized that she has been in love with George Knightley for a long time just when it seems extremely unlikely that he will ever return that affection (in fact he has reason to despise her) -- the weather echoes her mood. Then the weather improves and so does her future with Mr. Knightley.

The Whole Story. In Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Grey, the subject of the painting -- the man -- remains young and beautiful, while his portrait acquires the ugliness of his sins.

Poetry. Metaphors are used all the time in poetry. I am not a poet; poetry intimidates me, so I will only mention it.

Metaphors that Match

So, now that we have seen some examples of metaphors in famous stories, how do you go about creating your own?

Think of an emotion, idea or character that you want to enhance with a metaphor, such as disgust, anger, hope, treachery, madness, confusion or reliability.

Consider what is in the setting of your story, such as the animals, food, furniture, technology, weather. Is there something that could do a good job of representing an emotion, an idea or a character? For example, if you were combining animals with some of the ideas above, you could use cockroaches to symbolize disgust, a bull to represent anger, or a dog to convey reliability.

You can strengthen the metaphor by including adjectives to increase its particularity or doing something with it. A dog may convey reliability, but a faithful dog conveys the concept better. If you want to signal that something bad will happen to your characters, then you can have something bad happen with the symbols representing them.

Perhaps you are writing about a chair for your protagonist. It could be faded. Comfortable. Lumpy or hard. Too large or too small. Perhaps it squeaks when she sits in it. Perhaps it is infested with mites. Perhaps it breaks when your hero sits on it. Perhaps it is new, or antique, cheap, or expensive. Any of these attributes can enhance your metaphor. With a little effort you can find the metaphor that matches your story perfectly.

And of course, not everything needs to be metaphorical. You can simply write that Henrietta sat down on the chair and not worry about it. As Sigmund Freud (allegedly) said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Mixing Metaphors

Sometimes more than one metaphor applies. A villain could have both snake-like and spider-like qualities, but generally they should not be mixed, as spiders don't slither and snakes don't build webs. Yet it is easy to mix metaphors; that is, to begin by using one but then to move on to use another. Sometimes this is deliberate; sometimes it is a misunderstanding of the original phrase; frequently it is just due to the human brain, making connections and combining ideas when you would rather it did not. Here are some examples and some thoughts on why they do, or do not work.

We could stand here and talk until the cows turn blue. This is mixing the sayings "until we turn blue" and "until the cows come home". The problem is that cows never turn blue. At least I have never seen a blue cow (nor a purple cow, for that matter).

He was watching me like I was a hawk. Normally hawks do the watching and the proper version of this is "like a hawk". However, there are circumstances where someone might observe a hawk -- if that someone were a mouse or a dedicated birdwatcher, watching a hawk would make sense.

A wolf in cheap clothing. The traditional expression is "a wolf in sheep's clothing," meaning someone who pretends to be harmless but who is dangerous, with a hidden and often lethal agenda. This could be said by someone who had misheard the original phrase. However, a wolf in cheap clothing is actually possible: one could imagine a dangerous person dressed badly.

Mixed metaphors can be simple mistakes that you wish to avoid. Another option is to give them to one of your characters, to add some flavor or distinction to his or her voice. Another way to use them is in the third example, in which you are playing with the words, using the cheap clothing deliberately.

Conclusion and Caveats

How much metaphor to include in your story is an artistic decision. However, be warned that not all your readers will "get" your metaphors the first time they read your story. Perhaps they will pick up on the meanings when they re-read it, or when they write an essay about your book. Perhaps comprehension will come decades later, as it did for me and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Again, if you are studying for a test, please memorize and utilize the definitions given by your instructor.

Finally, a few last words. Moira Allen has decided to stop issuing this newsletter, and hence the Crafting Fabulous Fiction column will also cease. Working with Moira has been an absolute joy. She also showed me that there are some people out there in the writing world (pun intended!) who combine the characteristics of intelligence, integrity, competence, generosity and sheer niceness.

I also want to thank all the readers who have taken the time to plow through my columns, especially those who were kind enough to send me affirming feedback. If you want to reach me at some point during the future, you should be able to do it via my website, http://www.tapestryofbronze.com.

Keep on writing!




Column Index

Copyright © 2015 Victoria Grossack
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.

Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.


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