“Using a metaphor in front of a man as unimaginative as Ridcully was the same as putting a red flag to a bu–the same as putting something very annoying in front of someone who was annoyed by it.” — Lords and Ladies, Terry Pratchett
What is a metaphor?
A metaphor is a literary device that directly refers to or describes a thing by comparing it to something it is not, showing a comparison between the two items to give the reader a deeper understanding.
A metaphor states that something is another thing, when it isn’t literally the other thing. It doesn’t mean they’re actually the same–it’s just drawing the comparison.
Metaphor is one of the most common literary devices, and for good reason! It adds layers of understanding and poetry to your prose and helps readers connect with your story in a more relatable way.
Like Pat Benatar said, love is a battlefield. Is love literally a battlefield? No. Figuratively? Sure!
There are many different types of metaphors.
Let’s look at a few.
Types of metaphors:
Primary – a primary metaphor is the most basic type. It directly and simply compares one thing with another. Example: War is hell.
Complex – a complex metaphor is a combination of primary metaphors. Example: “The mist of a dream had passed across them.” — A Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
Implied – an implied metaphor compares two things without mentioning one of them. Example: Gloria flew down the hall. Gloria is being compared to a bird without a bird being mentioned. (Suspend your disbelief and accept that Gloria is not, in fact, a bird.)
Extended/Sustained – an extended or sustained metaphor is a metaphor that stretches through multiple sentences or paragraphs. Sometimes they can show up numerous times in a work of writing. A classic example is from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “But Soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun! Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief. That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.”
Absolute – an absolute metaphor pairs two things that have nothing to do with each other to create a striking and distinct comparison. Example: Love is a battlefield.
Mixed – a mixed metaphor is when you cross two or more metaphors to make an outrageous or silly comparison. They’re usually funny. Example: We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.
Dead – a dead metaphor is essentially a cliche. It has been overused, and it’s tired and boring. Using dead metaphors in creative writing isn’t advised. Example: Dead as a doornail.
Metaphors in writing
Metaphors are used in novels, nonfiction, songs, poetry, and everything else. Here are some examples from writers you’re likely familiar with.
- “The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid near and nearer the sill of the world.” — Lord of the Flies, William Golding
- “But a bird that stalks / down his narrow cage / can seldom see through / his bars of rage / his wings are clipped and / his feet are tied / so he opens his throat to sing.” — Caged Bird, Maya Angelou
- “Time is the moving image of eternity.” — Plato
- “Life’s a climb, but the view is great.” — Hannah Montana
- “The parents looked upon Matilda in particular as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away.” — Matilda, Roald Dahl
- “Sit down, Montag. Watch. Delicately, like the petals of a flower. Light the first page, light the second page. Each becomes a black butterfly.” — Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
- “I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.” — The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
- “My breath bleeds. My heartbeat drowns my ears.” — I Am the Messenger, Markus Zusak
Simile versus metaphor
There’s a lot of confusion around similes and metaphors. Which is which? Are they the same thing? What’s the difference?
A simile is a metaphor that uses an extra word–like, as, or an equivalent word.
So a simile is a metaphor, but a metaphor is not necessarily a simile.
“Ogres are like onions.” is a simile and a metaphor because it uses the word like.
“Ogres are onions.” is not a simile, but it is still a metaphor.
How to use metaphors
When using metaphors in your own writing, you want to be original. Most metaphors that sound familiar to you are cliches. Writing a cliche that you haven’t re-worked in some way is trite and makes your writing look amateur.
However, an original metaphor can bring sharp contrast, color, and excitement to your prose.
Here are some tips for using metaphors effectively:
- Be original. As I said above, if you’re using a metaphor that’s been done before, make sure you’re bringing something new to it.
- Be careful of overdoing it. An unpracticed writer might try to use metaphor and it comes out unintentionally unnatural or forced. Take your time working them into the rest of your prose so it flows well.
- Use clear metaphors. If your metaphor makes your point harder to understand, it isn’t doing its job. A metaphor should connect the reader with the message of your writing–it should make a concept clearer and more enjoyable to read. If your metaphor doesn’t accomplish those two things, it needs another look.
Practice using metaphor in your writing by being intentional and original to give your prose an artistic edge and help your reader understand your message through contrast and comparison.
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