Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss pre-writing and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about revising your world building. This week, Gita Trelease and Gabrielle Byrne talk about how to create powerful metaphors.
Metaphor and simile are among the richest, most useful tools in any writer’s kit. The word “metaphor” comes from the Greek metapherein: meta, meaning “across, over” and pherein, meaning “carry, or bear.” The word describes what a metaphor does: it carries meaning from one place to another.
A writer uses metaphor and simile to do the same thing, that is, by “carrying meaning” from one thing to another, a metaphor brings together two seemingly dissimilar things as a way of deepening the reader’s understanding. Ideally, the comparisons are surprising and help the reader see something they hadn’t seen before.
Simile uses “like” or “as” to highlight one aspect of similarity: “Pip’s uncle was like a burning-down house, angry and about to collapse.” Or, “Pip’s uncle was as angry as a burning-down house.” Here, I’m saying that Pip’s uncle was angry in the same way a raging house fire is angry, but that’s all I’m saying. A simile is specific and limited, because sometimes you just want to talk about one aspect of the two things you’re comparing.
Metaphor, though, sets up an identity for the reader (and often the writer) to explore. Using metaphor, I would say, “Pip’s uncle was a burning-down house.” Pip’s uncle = burning-down house. He is the whole flaming thing, not just a part of it. And once I’ve set that identity up, I can go further if I want, extending the metaphor: “Pip’s uncle was a burning-down house. And if you’d forgotten something inside, you weren’t never going back in to get it.” I could even keep going, describing the burning house, how the fire started, what was destroyed—all the while still describing Pip’s uncle.
At the root, metaphor and simile are both powerful tools in the author’s arsenal, but both are just comparisons. So what makes them so powerful then, you might ask. My explanation is that writing a book is a little like a bachelor party.
Um, sorry Gabby, you lost me.
So, you know that bit when all the guys pile in the window and pretend-kidnap the groom and tie him to a chair and take him out and lead him from one place to another and the whole thing is a blast for everyone? Yeah, that. That’s what authors do. We go in and stealthily bind the reader to our story like a bachelor to his party chair. One loop for the characters they love, another for exciting plot lines, one for beautiful prose, and metaphors? Metaphors make great knots. They connect the physical and the emotional, or the emotional and the spiritual, using details that plumb the story’s heart. They tie the reader to the character in deep ways that can’t be easily undone.
Her hair rose in the wind, black ribbons that whipped the air, her anger holding back the storm.
- Physical (black hair)
- Emotional (she’s mad about something)
- Spiritual (okay it’s a stretch, but the storm)
The best metaphors (IMHO) always draw from at least two of these areas. Added to this is that there are certain categories of things, that are intrinsically bound to our human hearts. Their very nature is emotional. Using one of these categories in your metaphor makes the knot that much stronger. I talked a little about these in the MYC post on fantasy world building (weather, food, housing, and religion/spirituality). On top of these universal categories, you may also have some “Bonus character quality” categories that are deeply powerful, because they act as reminders to the reader of the essence of the character/s in that scene. For example, a cook is going to use lots of food metaphors, but a soldier might use lots of battle/blood/loss metaphors. A seamstress might describe things using lots of sewing metaphors:
The sparks in his dark eyes gleamed, silver threads tugging her forward and meant just for her.
- Physical (dark eyes)
- Emotional (passion)
- Bonus Quality (she’s a seamstress)
These character-specific metaphors can also work by comparing something that’s happening to one character, to a quality in another:
The needle of her intent sharpened against Billy’s guileless smile.
The comparisons can work alone (the sea was a cold embrace), or you can deepen them further with added details (the sea was a cold embrace, heartless and unforgiving). It can be fun to play with reader expectation at this level too, as in this simile:
Her teeth were like Desperado pearls, and I figured they were just as stolen.
Last but not least, the way an author uses metaphor can set up a tone for the whole book. A dark, psychological thriller might use dark and eerie metaphors:
She waited, holding her breath until she was certain the men had gone. Her feet pressed against the cold tile as a single beam of moonlight arched across the kitchen floor, a slow, silent bird diving toward dawn.
While a quirky, funnier story might go with quirky, funny metaphors:
The new girl had a pancake face, wide and doughy, but sure to make a person happy by the time breakfast was over.
Playing with metaphor is a great way to get more energy and depth into your story. If you use them to explore your characters and your world, you’ll be sure to lift the whole manuscript to another level.
We hope you’ll come back next for next Wednesday’s MYC post to learn about Writing With Sensitivity.
Gabrielle Byrne’s debut MG fantasy, RISE OF THE DRAGON MOON, is due out in Winter, 2019 with Imprint/Macmillan. She’s represented by Catherine Drayton. Learn more about her at www.gkbyrnebooks.com
Gita Trelease writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Also, wigs. She is represented by Molly Ker Hawn at The Bent Agency. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.