Wit and wisdom for wordsmiths

The metaphor: the powerhouse of the writer’s arsenal

In case you’ve wondered what happened to The Writer’s Clinic for the past few weeks, I’ve been in Mexico. Specifically, in a Spanish Colonial city in the central highlands called San Miguel de Allende.

It was amazing. I’m still digesting the experience.

Next post I’ll tell you about it – and what I learned about language and writing by being in a place where I don’t speak the native language.

In the meanwhile, a few thoughts on that Howitzer of the writer’s arsenal, the metaphor.

bloodFilledMosquito1 The metaphor: the powerhouse of the writers arsenal

Imagine you have a nice, juicy assignment to write about mosquitoes.  Let’s dream big and say it’s for National Geographic.

During your research, you find that the female mosquito drinks three times her body weight in blood at every meal. Yikes! But for National Geographic, facts have to be not just  impressive but sexy.

Then genius strikes.

You write, “Picture Angelina Jolie sitting down to a steak dinner, getting up from the table weighing 380 pounds, and flying away.”

That’s what science writer David Quammen wrote in “Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature.”  (Except, since he was writing in 1985, his skinny eater was Audrey Hepburn.)

Metaphors — analogies, allegories, parables, hyperbole, all the forms of comparison — thread themselves so pervasively through language that we hardly notice them.

A blanket of snow. The road not taken.  The pinnacle of success. Dead as a doornail.  Snake in the grass.

Metaphors are found from the oldest literature on earth (“The Epic of Gilgamesh”) to Rush Limbaugh’s “I live in Literalville.”

They can comprise anything from a few words like Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage”  to a Tolkien trilogy.

The point of the metaphor?  To convey an idea in a way that mere facts cannot by creating a connection — an image — that didn’t exist before.

“An idea is a feat of association,” wrote Robert Frost, “and the height of it is a good metaphor.”

Winston Churchill gave us the colorful “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

Stephen Colbert is a modern metaphor maestro:

“An accountant is a manila envelope yellowed with age that fell between the filing cabinet and the wall. Trapped, alone, parched.”

From Dr. Gregory House come these two:

“Have you guys heard any of my metaphors yet? Well come on, sit on grandpa’s lap as I tell you how infections are criminals; immune system’s the police.”

“The liver is like a cruise ship taking in water. As it starts to sink, it sends out an SOS. Only instead of radio waves, it uses enzymes. The more enzymes in the blood, the worse the liver is. But once the ship has sunk, there’s no more SOS. You think the liver’s fine, but it’s already at the bottom of the sea.”

Copyblogger’s Sonia Simone wrote about “a nice looking website that sits there like an empty shop waiting for customers to show up.”

Good metaphors appeal to the senses, the emotions or both.   They’re often visual, like the snake in the grass or Churchill’s truth with its pants down.

Good metaphors surprise.  They compare things we’ve never thought to compare.

The trick, of course, is coming up with new ones.

The secret is noticing, noticing, noticing. Seeing what’s going on around you every minute of every day, thinking about comparisons.  Reading fiction. Listening to movie and TV scripts.

It’s not easy. When you come up with a good one, zowie.  When you don’t, take a break and try again.

Here’s an example from the dark-and-stormy-night school of writing that doesn’t make the cut:

“Her eyes burrow into my forehead like greedy grubs that want to feed off my private thoughts.”

I’ll leave the author of that one anonymous.

What are your favorite metaphors? Have you come up with any good ones yourself?

Share them in the Comments.

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