Friday, September 23, 2016

Metaphors in Your Story--What Are They, How to Use Them, When to Use Them


I'll never forget the first year of my MFA.  I had a great adviser, a well-published writer, who was also a minimalist.  I am not.   I love lyrical prose.  So we were an odd match that turned out to be one of the best parts of my expensive education.

As my adviser, Rebecca required me to send her a packet of new writing every two weeks.  She would read the pages and mark them up, then return them to me.  her handwriting was atrocious but her comments were stellar.  She didn't hold back.  If she loved something, she raved.  If she hated it, she said that too.  She assumed, rightly so, that at this point in my writing career I was past coddling.  I just wanted the straight truth.



I went overboard on the lyricism one month.  Probably because I was reading Virginia Wolff for an assignment.  I loved her images, her metaphors, so I got very poetic in my pages. 

Rebecca didn't hold back, as usual.  Page after page with a red slash across all the writing.  About ten pages of this, and she just wrote ENOUGH! in big letters.

She did take time to explain.  And assign me away from Wolff and towards minimalist writers--writers who use no imagery at all.  I needed a strong dose. 

It took some months to recover from working with Rebecca but my writing was a lot better.  I didn't abandon my love for lyricism, metaphor, and poetic image in my writing.  All these devices are lovely.  But only if and when they serve the story.

A writer in my part 2, Your Book Starts Here online class recently emailed me with a great question about metaphor.  "Recently I've read some articles on metaphors," she wrote, "and how we should perhaps plan a whole revision around inserting metaphors in each scene.  Is this good practice, or do you think they should just arise from the story...or at least not be placed in every scene intentionally. I know metaphors help create that picture/meaning in a reader's mind, but how methodically should we do it?"

Magic of Metaphor
When you pair an object, movement, or other element with an image that is not related--her hands were small doves--you expand a reader's involvement with image in your writing.  Image connects with theme, or subtext.  The greater meaning.  Implying that hands were small doves gives an immediate impression of fluttering, perhaps of plumpness, of the shyness that doves can exhibit. 

Some writers, like Ray Bradbury who famously said "I am a metaphor machine," use a metaphor in every scene, as the writer in my class alluded to.  This requires a lot of natural skill with images, first.  Also, it requires enough detachment from your love of image to see if the metaphor is indeed serving the story or weighting it down unnecessarily, as in my experience with my adviser, Rebecca.

Used with skill, metaphor can enrich your writing tremendously.  Unlike simile, which uses "like" and "as," metaphor just places the object with the image--no explanation or comparison words required.  Metaphor asks the reader to leap into image without help from the writer.  Simile feels tentative.  It can sound cliche.  That's because so many writers start with simile; it's easier, it's more common.

Some writers call metaphor a "dangerous" writing tool.  If you'd like to get started using metaphor, one helpful technique in this excellent article from The Write Place is to comb through a chapter and locate all the similes.  Then replace them with metaphor.  Similes offer placeholders--you already know you want an image comparison there, but maybe you couldn't think of a truly original one when you were drafting.  At revision, you can go back and see how many you can replace with metaphor.

Some writers work with extended metaphors.  I teach this technique for those ready to build theme--because an extended metaphor, or an image that recurs throughout the book, immediately evokes subtext or thematic meaning.  Extended metaphors are tricky, nearly impossible at early drafts.  Revision-stage, they are fun to work with.

Danger of Metaphors

Two common warning signs that your metaphors aren't serving your story:

1.  If you use too many metaphors all at once, the reader gets image overload (back to my experience with Rebecca).  Instead of writing ENOUGH! on your pages, the reader will just stop reading.   How many is too many?  The best way to answer this is to read a chapter from a favorite published novel or memoir.  Count up the metaphors.  There might be one per scene, one per chapter, or one per page (one per page is a LOT, so be wary of this unless you are incredibly skilled).  Test it out in your own writing.  Read it aloud, get some feedback.

2.  If you mix metaphors, the image falls flat.   "She was a caged animal, riding a slippery slope of fear."  The two images (caged animal and slippery slope) don't connect at all.  The reader will be confused or turned off.  End of story.

Your weekly writing exercise

Check out this great article on metaphor use--one of the best.  It's called "Do Your Metaphors Rock?" and although it talks about song lyrics, the techniques are useful for any kind of writing.