In Greece, moving vans are labelled with the word “metaphor,” because in its simplest meaning the word indicates the ability to move. When I saw my first Athenian moving van I was thrilled at the thought that a metaphor might be a microcosm of what the story as a whole should do: it should move you, it should bring you out of yourself and into the world of words.
Let’s get two things straight before I go any further. First, when I say “metaphor,” I mean ANY comparison between two things. Forget what you learned in high school— that simile uses “like” or “as” (e.g. Robert Burns’s “My love is like a red red rose”) and metaphor uses “is” (e.g. Emily Dickinson’s “The pedigree of honey/ Does not concern the bee; / A clover, at any time, to him / Is aristocracy”). I tell my students (in both literature and fiction writing classes) that “metaphor” covers both, and that metaphor exists even when “like,” “as,” or “is” is never used, such as in Beth Kephart’s Small Damages when a nun “blackbirds” by. The implicit comparison is between the way the moving nun looks and a flying blackbird. Basically, I consider any written comparison to be a metaphor— between a thing and a movement, between a gesture and an idea, an emotion and an event, etc. Not just between two objects.
Second, just because I’ve written a few books doesn’t make me an expert on the subject. I’m still learning. I learn as a writer and as a reader. And what I’ve learned as a reader tells me that almost nothing throws me out of a book more than a clunky metaphor. I think about metaphor— or what one writer friend calls plainly “description”— a lot. Here are some conclusions I’ve come to, and I share them for whatever they are worth.
1. A little is enough for a feast. Read a story by Jhumpa Lahiri. She might use one, maybe two metaphors in the whole story. This is part of her strength. Metaphor is fun to do, delightful to do well; writing one makes me happy. But sometimes I think it’s a cheap trick. It’s showy. It can sometimes come across as a “look what I can do” move by the writer. A reader can enjoy it. Or it can pull her out of the book because she’s paying too much attention to the writer’s craft and not enough to the story.
On a related note…
2. One at a time, please. Maybe you’d like to indicate your character’s indecisive state of mind by presenting a succession of possible metaphors, in a construction as follows: “It was like this, or like that” (fill in this and that as you choose). I still think it’s a bad idea to offer two metaphors when one should do the trick. You risk indicating your indecisiveness as a writer. Probably you can’t choose how to describe something best. I don’t care if it’s a Sophie’s Choice decision; make it. Otherwise, you’re inviting your reader to choose which metaphor he likes best, which means he’ll think one is subpar, and now you’ve just made your reader think that something on your page is subpar, and you didn’t want that, did you?
3. Save it for when it counts. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Only Goodness,” she unleashes her metaphor when she describes how her character imagines her infant son drowned in his bath, with his hair fanned around him like a flower. It’s well timed. It’s a critical emotional moment, probably the crux of the story, and it’s a moment when the character as well as the reader is using her imagination in a vivid, horrible way (when you create synchronicity between reader and character, that is a good thing). It’s the perfect moment to use a tool that shows us how our imagination works.
4. Your metaphor is your character. As you move to describe something, ask yourself whether the character or narrator in question would describe it this way. The words he or she uses, the way they are used, is part of character construction. If you’re writing fantasy, think, too, about how a metaphor might bind your reader more deeply to the world you’re creating. What if your character compared something to an element of his world, an element you know because you’ve encountered in the second chapter (say, an instrument that requires three people to be played)? The reader will feel more like a welcome traveler in your world, one who has begun to learn its culture.
There’s more to say, of course, but I’ll stop there. What are your favorite metaphors? Why do they work for you? I’d love it if you gave some examples!