On Metaphors

All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances ...

William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2/7

Like other forms of figure of speech, metaphors stray from a language’s conventions in order to cause a rhetorical effect. In other words, metaphors assign a likeness or image to an abstract concept to fully explain its emotional depth.

In the excerpt above, the world is called a stage, and men and women as its actors. This excerpt acts as a metaphor because Shakespeare does not literally mean the world is a stage but is rather comparing the two to call attention to the functions of the world and those inhabiting it.

And it’s not just classic literature that uses metaphors, but scientific discourse as well. Biologist and scholar Lynn Margulis describe the role of symbiosis in evolution as the following:

Symbiosis shows us that such trees are idealized representations of the past. In reality the tree of life often grows in on itself… the tree of life is a twisted, tangled, pulsing entity with roots and branches meeting underground and in midair to form eccentric new fruits and hybrids.

Just as Shakespeare compared the world to a stage, Lynn makes a similar sentiment, comparing the evolutionary process and its complexities to a tree using delightfully visual prose to strengthen the metaphor. Who knew a field as rigid as the sciences could express the creative spectacle of a metaphor—a rhetorical convention often associated with fictional text?

But most glaring is our everyday use of metaphors. In the English language alone, common phrases or colloquialisms, such as “couch potato,” “black sheep,” and the all too ubiquitous “beating a dead horse” are almost second nature. When used, the phrases are not intended (at least for most individuals) to conjure actual images of russets on suede sectionals or acts of animal violence but rather connotate a specific idea. Couch potatoes are linked to the lazy or sedentary. Black sheep are those who characteristically stand out within a group. And to beat a dead horse is simply another way to address blatant redundancy. Simply put, metaphors roll off the tongue, and it seems impossible not to encounter one in our day-to-day life, whether we are its recipient or giver.

Now, to my point: As writers, how does one go about creating an effective metaphor? What approaches should be taken? And what can be done to avoid a cliché?

For some foundation, let’s examine the different types of metaphors found in literature.

1. Standard: Standard metaphors are comparisons between two unlike things usually written in an X is Y format.

Ex: Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage.” Here the world and a stage are being compared to explain the world’s mechanics.

2. Implied: Implied metaphors compare two unlike things without the mentioning of one of those things.

Ex: “He slithered past the large crowd” The implication is that the man went through a crowd in a manner similar to a snake, yet without explicitly highlighting the snake itself.

3. Visual: Visual metaphors use an image to associate certain ideas with one another.

Ex: Harry’s lightning bolt scar in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a metaphorical representation of Harry’s resistance to Lord Voldemort.

4. Conceit: Conceits are types of metaphors that “form an extremely ingenious or fanciful parallel between apparently dissimilar or incongruous objects or situations.”

Ex: In John Donne’s “The Flea,” Donne uses the pest to describe love’s infectious nature.

5. Extended: Extended metaphors tend to be complex and, as the name suggests, go beyond a single sentence or phrase.

Now on to some tips when crafting a metaphor.

1. Consider the Context: A metaphor’s potency comes from not only the metaphor itself but also where it appears and who it's directed at within the story. When making your metaphor, consider the setting/environment or the character’s motivations.

2. Don’t Underestimate Simplicity: Metaphors lacking complexity are usually the most powerful. Forgo heightened language and prioritize a metaphor that emphasizes a reader’s ability to visualize and understand the metaphor.

3. Cultivate Creativity: Read. Read. Read. Literature, especially poems will help to give you an idea of the types of feelings or ideas you might want your metaphors to entice. Poems are rich in metaphors and imagery, making them an especially wonderful resource.

Acknowledge the tips above, and you'll be on your way to writing original and inventive metaphors. I have only scratched the surface of the types of figure of speech and linguistic conventions a writer may encounter. Interested in other aspects like writing style or editing practices? Check out The Writer’s Corner for more writing tips.

About the Author:

Aaron Talledo is currently pursuing his BA in English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He finds inspiration from literature, music, and film and expresses creativity through writing. In his free time, Aaron enjoys fitness, meditation, and video games.


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