Clever Metaphors

It’s really easy to come up with old, rehashed metaphors. 

Some of them are habit, things that are part of our everyday language.  He’s dog tired. She was all skin and bones.  There are common comparisons, which can be worded well but still feel overused.  He looked at a cloudless sky when he gazed into her eyes.  Honestly, we’re so used to making and hearing analogies (and similes and metaphors) that it is fairly straightforward to use an existing one.  It’s lazy, but we do it. 

It’s much more difficult to come up with new, clever metaphors.  The challenges arise from several places.  First, an author has to be familiar with the common and frequently used comparisons to be able to avoid them.  If you don’t know something is worn out, it might sound clever to you.  Fortunately, this one can be avoided with a piece of advice that authors hear all the time – read a lot.

Another hurdle for authors who want to create a fresh comparison is finding something fresh to compare.  There are lots of people writing and creating, and only so many things that share common traits.   Just recognize that someone else has probably already used that comparison.  As long as it’s not overused and already tired, your readers will still appreciate it. 

Two other difficulties relate to the reader.  A metaphor can’t be too obscure, or the reader won’t understand it, which defeats the purpose.  If I said someone spoke with all the eloquence of a heron, a reader with limited bird knowledge might not realize it was an insult.  The other obscurity concern is the risk that the two items being compared won’t actually be comparable.  This will just make the reader confused, or turn into a belabored metaphor that requires too much explanation to be effective.  I could make a comparison between a shopping mall and a tide pool, but unless I plan to spend several paragraphs describing the relationship, it won’t be clear to many people.  This one is easy to address; think about your readers’ knowledge level from time to time, and you should be fine.

Of course, even if we come up with something new and clever, we can fall into our own odd habits as authors.  I make a lot of bird comparisons, because it is an area in which I have some experience.   I also used “celery” to describe green dresses a lot in the original Butterflies – I have no idea why – and I’m sure I have other habits that I haven’t realized yet. 

As long as we aren’t lazy and use the same stuff everyone else has used, I think we’ll all be okay.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Leigh Townsend
    Oct 10, 2013 @ 21:28:38

    XKCD has a clever comic related to this: http://xkcd.com/1257/.

    Reply

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