Discover the Magic of Metaphor

My seventh grade English teacher introduced metaphors as an afterthought at the end of the school year. Clearly they were not nearly as important as the meat and potatoes world of gerunds, prepositions and relative pronouns. They were literary devices useful only to create a poetic effect, a linguistic luxury by most standards.

When my classmates and I could recite the difference between metaphors and similes and, we knew enough. It was time to explore the practical topics of dangling participles and misplaced modifiers.

I’m here to set the record straight. Not only is a simile a type of metaphor, metaphors are useful and practical. In fact, they are essential, not only to writers, but to humanity as a whole. Many cognitive scientists believe that metaphor serves as the underpinning of all language. Metaphors are the foundation of how we think, decide, express ourselves and act – so much so that the human brain may even be hardwired to make them.

According to linguistic researchers, the average person uses metaphorical figures of speech dozens of times an hour in normal conversation. Think about it. The wind howls. The stock market plunges when we wish it would climb. Time flies and our biological clocks tick. We are part of the food chain, the chain of command. Our hearts break, we get butterflies in our stomachs and our minds go blank.

We rely on the device of metaphor so often that many have become clichés. Others are so common, they move beyond the realm of cliché and are practically invisible.

Because readers rely on metaphors in order to understand what they are reading, good writers take them seriously. Rather than regarding them as so much literary fluff to be sprinkled over a piece of writing for effect, they choose them wisely.

Metaphors, because they identify one thing with another, pack a great deal of information in a small bundle of words. The more compact the metaphor is, the more powerful the metaphor becomes. For example, using the word like to create a simile creates the weakest comparisons. “Her mind is like a steel trap,” has less punch than if I say, “her steel trap mind.”

Implied metaphors are often more forceful than the obvious ones because they allow us to rely on tried and true comparisons while avoiding cliché. If I say, “her mind clamped down on his words, slicing them to the bone,” you get the picture and the connection more vividly than if I mentioned the steel trap outright.

According to linguistic philosopher George Lakoff, metaphors determine how we frame new information. Writers who have mastered the art of metaphor know this and arrange them deliberately, not out of fear of breaking the rules, but because they understand that mixed metaphors confuse readers.

If I write, “The music cascaded and swirled into eddies and pools that warmed my heart like a fire in winter,” I’ve lost my readers. By committing to one metaphor or another and making sure there is sufficient space between the metaphors I use in a piece of writing, I come up with stronger images.

Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote, “The metaphor is perhaps one of man’s most fruitful potentiatities. Its efficacy verges on magic and it seems a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of His creatures when he made him.”

Your power comes from metaphors. Notice them. Study their habits. Befriend them. Respect them. Play with them. Work with them. Their magic will serve you well.

Creative Write:

Metaphor Play: Making a strong connection between two seemingly unrelated things creates powerful metaphors. The key is to make a clear connection, not a contrived one. Practice by making five connections for each of these pairs.

  • Despair is like a lawnmower because
  • Marriage is like grapefruit because
  • Summer is like a backache because
  • Joy is like an electrical cord because
  • Grief is like a garbage truck because

Resource for Writers:

Heather Blakey’s Soul Food Café is “a quirky writing cafe, a cyber sanctuary patronized by accomplished and struggling writers alike, writers who come on a daily basis to quench writers’ block, nourish creativity and fuel the imagination.” A teacher and a writer, Heather has created a wonderful site filled with inspiration and good ideas. This month she invited me to be an official friend of Soul Food in the company of Jean Houston and Belleruth Naparstek, author of Your Sixth Sense. I’m honored.

Good Writing