Her Words Flowed Like a … Tar Stream? How to Avoid Clichés but Not Exchange Them for Bad Metaphors
by Angela Eschler
with Heidi Brockbank and Sabine Berlin
Skilled use of figurative language can take your writing from mundane to magical. It can’t replace well-thought-out plots, empathetic characters, and dialogue that packs a punch—or any other elements of strong writing that make a great story—but a book without figurative language feels a bit like a bare room. The structural engineering may be in place, but it’s not a home.
Innately sensing this, many authors dive into figurative and flowery language with no idea of the effect their words are creating. Their language doesn’t match the tone, pacing, or mood of the scene or, worse, it hinders the very concept over which they are waxing poetic and pulls a reader right out of the book. In an attempt to supply lovely language, newbie writers either default to clichés, or try so hard to avoid them they end up with something worse—bad metaphors and similes. The last thing you want is someone tweeting your bad metaphor or publicly mocking it on Goodreads.
To ensure a non-embarrassing use of metaphors/similes (meaning those that do not annoy or unintentionally amuse the reader), you’ll want to understand some things about their proper purpose. They can have many values depending upon the genre and your intentions:
- to remind us that everything is related, that there are grand truths expressed in the universe
- to engage us emotionally with an idea we might otherwise brush over
- to emphasize the qualities of something without being boring and overdescribing it
- to paint a scene that delights the mind’s eye
- to encapsulate a complicated emotion/moment that needs to be conveyed succinctly while retaining its emotional power (For instance, scenes in which a character is reacting to a tragic event—including crying, screaming, or suffering internally—can be awkward to convey; they can often alienate a reader by either being overdramatic and going on too long, or, conversely, not packing enough of a punch because the author passes over them too quickly. It’s just difficult to properly express the true length and depth of such moments, but the well-drawn metaphor is the perfect solution for this dilemma.)
- to convey a great amount of information in a succinct way so as to quickly bring the reader up to speed on what a particular experience is like or on the background of a situation/relationship (thus, it is often an ideal way to “show” rather than “tell”)
Primarily, however, metaphors and similes need to enhance communication by helping the reader call on the experience of something familiar to help them understand something less familiar.
Metaphors are more than just pretty prose that makes your book all flowery and charmingly delightful. A metaphor is a symbol, a way of mixing two unlike things to create a common thought. It should reveal something about the idea/scene, not obscure it in grandiloquent verbosity. (This is also one reason clichés get a bad rap, because they’ve become so common we just pass them over and they don’t reveal anything—or add to the text in a meaningful way). When creating fresh metaphors, make sure that:
- The idea you are trying to expand on is naturally related to the image you are using. Don’t try to force an image to fit an idea just because you want a metaphor there.
- The metaphor actually has a purpose—it clarifies or emphasizes something important, or explains it in a way that gets at the depths of the idea, or it enlightens the reader as to an aspect of the idea they may not have considered or have no experience with (or it’s an opportunity to use a great image that enhances the prose concept—i.e., it really fits in multiple ways).
- You are not using an obscure image or idea just because it’s dramatic or sounds unique. If it doesn’t make the idea you are trying to enhance more clear to the reader (in less words, say), or at the very least doesn’t inhibit the reader from quickly grasping the idea while you’re waxing poetic, it probably isn’t a good idea. A bad metaphor will confuse the reader or, as we noted, pull them out of your writing altogether.
An example of a metaphor that works is from Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’:
“[She did others’ wash and picked cotton] so that her children didn’t have to live on welfare alone, so that one of them could climb up her backbone and escape the poverty and hopelessness that ringed them, free and clean.” (xii prologue, emphasis added)
It works because the image of the backbone is related to the idea at hand: A) She literally did give her back in cotton picking (because it’s back-breaking work) in order to make enough money to build a future for her boys. B) Her sacrifices/determination figuratively could have been her core strength—similar to a backbone). C) Her sons ascended in life only because of her sacrifices, so they could figuratively climb up via their mother.
The emotional effect is that the reader gains some clarity on what it’s like to try to rise from poverty, an experience that would be very hard to convey in few words without a metaphor.
This Doesn’t Work
Here’s an example of a metaphor that doesn’t work:
“Her broken heart felt like getting smacked with the trunk of a cottonwood tree over and over.”
The problem here, when we’re talking about losing a true love, is: A) It is not tightly related to the idea of a broken heart. A broken heart is painful, and does physically feel like your heart being crushed, but it is not quite the pain of being whacked repeatedly with a tree trunk (particularly not a cottonwood, specifically). The relationship idea is not naturally connected. B) The image itself is so strange that we focus on that rather than the idea it should express—why a trunk and not a branch, why a cottonwood and not an olive tree, etc.? It doesn’t clarify or enlighten the reader as to the depths of a broken heart; it’s just confusing. C) It doesn’t—hopefully—draw on an experience the reader has any familiarity with, so they cannot use the knowledge of the tree-beating to help them understand a broken heart (if they’ve never had one).*
Similes are like the less intimidating cousin to the metaphor. They don’t need to be as deep and complete in their connection to the idea you’re highlighting. They just need to paint a picture that delights the mind’s eye and yet are not inappropriate for the idea expressed, i.e., there should be a visual connection between the idea/scene and the image, but they don’t need to have layers of connected meaning.
Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor did this perfectly in Traveling with Pomegranates:
“Dolphins splitting the water like zippers …” (paraphrased)
This simile is interesting and takes our mind to the image in a fresh way where we’ll notice and muse on it. It emphasizes the unique way dolphins appear out of the water and it conveys tone (or a feeling) in a way that connects us to the experience of the narrator. It puts us in the scene—we vicariously experience it. But it isn’t necessarily layered with meaning. Given the authors’ goals for setting and tone there, imagine the mental picture you would have if they had said, “Dolphins popping from the water like beach balls.” It gives us the picture of dolphins, but not the tone / mood we’re looking for.
Take-home message: A good metaphor should draw on an image or event the reader already has familiarity with (or can easily imagine) in order to bring understanding to the idea you are trying to elucidate.
Do This Now
- Find an author that rocks metaphors and similes. Some to check out: Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone), Dean Koontz (From the Corner of His Eye), and Martine Leavitt (Keturah and Lord Death).
- Study them for ideas on when, how, and why they use figurative language to enhance the power of their story.
- Note the patterns for which types of instances inspire the author to employ figurative language.
- Find the clichés in your book (indications your mind innately knew to put figurative language there), and replace them with something more unique that fits the parameters above.
- Remember that metaphors and similes are built into our speech; don’t think too hard about them—let them flow naturally (but not as cliché as “like a river”)!
For more editing tips, download our proofreading checklist.
*(In defense of our tree-trunk metaphor, it might accurately describe a different kind of heartbreak, say, the aggravating and grinding pain of opening your hundredth rejection letter when you know your story is truly awesome, or perhaps the ongoing daily disappointment of scrambling to respond to each email ping, only to discover it’s not your agent with good news…. But don’t worry. Soon enough you’ll have a metaphor crafted that describes the ecstasy that follows such agony.)
Let’s hear from you! Do you have a favorite metaphor or simile you’ve read or written? Share it with us! Also, check out the comments below for great ideas including those regarding extended metaphors that are used throughout an entire work.
“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”
–Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
That’s a great one! Thanks for the reminder insight that humor can be a great angle to employ in crafting figurative language. I also like that it uses an image that’s the opposite of what the reader would expect. There are so many ways to skin this creative cat!
I enjoy reading books where the author uses metaphors and similes, but they need to be used sparingly.
“People say that eyes are windows to the soul” (is this a metaphor?) I’ve heard from many sources. I’m not sure who originated the saying, but I like.
Great points. Another thing that I think really matters is for the metaphor to make sense for the POV character to use as a reflection of their voice, and not just the circumstance. It could be a gorgeous or clever metaphor and fit the situation well but not the POV character or narrator specifically. And I’m not explaining that well but it’s jarring to me as a reader to find a character saying something beautiful that doesn’t sound like anything else they said.
I agree. The metaphor must match the voice. It is always strange when a metaphor is used that the POV character would know nothing about.
I love this point! I think metaphors present a great opportunity to really express your character’s voice and some of their experience. If your character is an artist, use some painting metaphors. If she’s a baker, you’ll probably have some sort of metaphoric leavening agent, or seasoning. We see metaphors in the things we understand. I, for instance, would never use a landscaping metaphor because I know nothing about the subject, as my neighbors can attest. 🙂 Great point, Melanie!
“The lines around his eyes were like tiny pockets out of which, were his eyebrows to ever rise in surprise, secrets might fall. But she had a feeling there was little that would ever surprise him.”
That one was mine, from a book I started a few years back and never finished. But I always liked it. Barbara Kingsolver gets my vote for the best figurative language- this one is from The Poisonwood Bible. My fourth (and last) child just turned one last week, so I really felt this one:
“But the last one: the baby who trails her scent like a flag of surrender through your life when there will be no more coming after- oh, that’s love by a different name. She is the babe you hold in your arms for an hour after she’s gone to sleep. If you put her down in the crib, she might wake up changed and fly away. So instead you rock by the window, drinking the light from her skin, breathing her exhaled dreams. Your heart bays to the double crescent moons of closed lashes on her cheeks. She’s the one you can’t put down.”
Those are all lovely examples above. Thank you for contributing everyone! Language is sooo delicious! And excellent points about the right context for the right metaphor.
This is one of the best lessons on metaphors and similes I’ve ever read. The instruction is simple and clear with perfect examples to illustrate the concepts. Unlike other articles I’ve read that define metaphors and similes, this tells you how they function in a story, not just how they’re created.
Thanks! Metaphors can be amazing. One of my all time favorites is…
Three butterflies, aerial geishas, danced out of the sunshine, into the porch shadows. Their silken kimonos flaring and folding in graceful swirls of color, as bashful as faces hidden behind the pleats of hand-painted fans.
Velocity by Dean Koonz
Sorry, not sure how that T escaped me! Koontz!
In writing creative non-fiction, I found it important to use a metaphor more extensively in a particular chapter describing domestic violence by likening the victim and abuser to Cindy Lou Who and the Grinch from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas. ” Because the purpose of the chapter was to explain the dynamics between these two individuals and their mindsets, the metaphor use was not a one-liner, but rather a reference to the story and then periodic insertions of the use of the characters to demonstrate the behaviors. However later in the manuscript I felt like continuing the use of the names of the characters was too much. How do you know the right point at which referring to the metaphor should be discontinued?
Thanks for your comment!
One of our editors had a great thought. She said:
“It depends on when you started utilizing the metaphor. With all things in life, humans feel comfortable with rhythm and pattern when reading.
If you started using the metaphor at the beginning of a random chapter and referred to it periodically, it is cleanest to continue using the metaphor through the chapter. Introducing the metaphor as part of your hook and then taking a twist on it in your kicker (ending of the chapter) is especially powerful. This ties the chapter together neatly and will help your chapter have a clear beginning and end.
If you started using the metaphor in the middle of the chapter, it might feel more contrived. There may not be a signal to the reader that the metaphor would be so important (beginnings on their own are signals). Have a few people read the chapter to gauge whether it is too much. If your metaphor continues beyond a chapter, it again depends. If it crops up in one other chapter, it may be odd and feel misplaced. But, if it crops up several times, interspersedly, they may recognize the importance of this metaphor in your overall story.
Remember RHYTHM and PATTERN when questioning how to weave in your metaphor.
Another one of our editors had a great response to your question:
“Off-the-cuff I think this author’s intuition is absolutely right. There are some metaphors that rather than impact, gain even more strength the more we flesh them out and continue pulling them through as a comparison to the narrative. But the author’s observation is also true that the time can come when the metaphor breaks down or overstays its welcome This is just something that good writers and editors will have to be mindful, deciding the longevity of a metaphor on case by case.
Also, just because we have spent a certain amount of time developing a metaphor at a certain point in a ms doesn’t mean we are married to it….and that we cannot leave it there where it naturally ended or ‘died.’ Imo it can and should stay and be developed upon as long as it’s powerful and serves the situation–and buried when its time has been served.
Here’s another answer to your question from another editor:
“We’re looking at the difference between a metaphor and extended metaphor. I agree with Ms. Battrick that an extended metaphor can help simplify complex ideas and make them more relevant–especially with something as multifaceted and unique to an individual as abuse. She’ll have readers who have experienced different types and amounts of abuse, and she’ll have readers who have experienced none. She’ll probably have readers who have experienced it, but aren’t yet aware that they have. The extended metaphor serves as a touchstone to refer back to and keep everyone on the same page. There are a couple of caveats I can think of off the top of my head. One is to set up the metaphor early on, and using characters or events that are practically universally known is a brilliant angle. The other is to make sure the metaphor is solid, otherwise, readers are going to argue the chinks they see.
I’ve seen both one-liner and extended metaphors used in a variety of texts–poetry, fiction, science, memoir, etc. Philosophers rely on extended metaphors to explain and discuss their abstract ideas. So what Ms. Battrick is doing with her extended metaphor has precedent in nonfiction. The answer to her question of how much will be a case-by-case situation. As long as the metaphor is helpful and not condescending, it’s effective. But if it gets repetitious or patronizing, readers start to turn off. With the use of a children’s story to discuss such a serious topic, I would be especially careful to avoid oversimplification and condescension. I think a good balance is to use the metaphor more at the beginning of the conversation and slowly wean the reader off of it. It might start off 50/50 but by the end be more 90% real talk and 10% metaphor. In education, we call this “scaffolding”–I’m guessing you’ve heard that before. 🙂
I don’t know if these are “great” ideas, but they’re certainly off-the-cuff. I hope they’re at least somewhat helpful.