How To Write Powerful Metaphor

Metaphors help readers see the world in a new way. Below are some hints for creating a resonant metaphor.

Some estimates suggest that one out of every 25 words we encounter is a metaphor. When writing, you’ll find yourself writing metaphor subconsciously as well as consciously. One pass of editing should focus on imagery, to nix accidental, not-so-great metaphors.

Metaphors are privileged areas for lying: by granting authors these limited flights of fancy, readers kid themselves into believing that what is not figurative in a text is somehow ‘truer’.

Jason K. Friedman in Goth: Undead Subculture

Example: Good Metaphor

From Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly (by Dave Eggers), set in Tanzania:

A woman on the tour bus has ‘leonine hair, frayed and thick, blond and white’.

Tanzania = lions = good metaphor because it reflects the setting.

Here’s another from Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates), describing Frank’s place of work:

At first glance, all the upper floors of the Knox Building looked alike. Each was a big open room, ablaze with fluorescent ceiling lights, that had been divided into a maze of aisles and cubicles by shoulder-high partitions. The upper panels of these dividers, waist to shoulder, were made of thick unframed plate glass that was slightly corrugated to achieve a blue-white semi-transparency; and the overall effect of this, to a man getting off the elevator and looking across the room, was that of the wide indoor lake in which swimmers far and near were moving, some making steady headway, others treading water, some seen in the act of breaking to the surface or going under, and many submerged, their faces loosened into wavering pink blurs as they drowned at their desks.

There are several different metaphors in the paragraph above (fire and mazes included), though those first metaphors don’t really jump out because they have become a part of the language. (‘A maze of corridors’ has become cliche – though we shouldn’t despise the cliche too much – it gets its meaning across.)

The extended metaphor of the sea of swimmers is particularly well done because, although I’ve seen similar open-plan offices in my life, I had never made the connection that the workers in such an office are like swimmers. When Yates describes how each is at a different stage of submersion, I think, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how it looks’.

But the true brilliance of this extended metaphor is how it relates to the theme. Frank Wheeler’s mediocre suburban life is itself a form of slow drowning, even though at first glance, this cruisy job feels like a day at the beach.

The Sea = Frank Wheeler’s Workplace = A slow drowning disguised as a harmless environment = A very good metaphor because it echoes the theme.

Example: Bad Metaphor

Perpetrator: me, some years ago.

My story was set in contemporary New Zealand. High school students are in a car, making their way to a school ball. Comment below comes courtesy of a writing group critter:

Streetlamps flash-danced by, [1] and neon signs and traffic lights and ordinary people making their way to ordinary places. Why couldn’t everyone have this much fun, every night, everywhere?


[l1]Nice echo of Katherine Mansfield here, but I’m not sure of the purpose of it

Exactly. There was no good reason  to include ‘flashdance’ in a contemporary story for young adults. Not when the setting is New Zealand. Not when flash-dancing should get the reader humming ‘What a feeling!’, if anything at all.

Flashdance = America = 1980s = bad metaphor. I took it out.

Related Links

Drag it Out: How to Use Extended Metaphors for Maximum Effect from Lit Reactor

Richard Dawkins Speaks About the Problem with Metaphors at Patheos

Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction of the novel or story.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

The metaphor is a fabricated image, without deep, true, genuine roots. It is an ephemeral expression. It is, or should be, one that is used only once, in passing. We must be careful, therefore not to give it too much thought; nor should the reader think too much about it.

Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

“Metaphors matter”, as Bernard Bailyn has reminded us, for “they shape the way we think” — all the more when they make sense in the light of actual experience.

A. Roger Ekirch

The Difference Between Imagery and Metaphor

A metaphor gives concrete substance to an impression that is difficult to express. Metaphor is related to a psychic being from which it differs. An image, on the contrary, product of absolute imagination, owes its entire being to the imagination.

Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

Don’t Hate On The Mixed Metaphor

A mixed metaphor is defined as ‘a combination of two or more incompatible metaphors’.

Actually, there is a way in which mixed metaphor is perfectly logical, and not an aberration at all. … In contemporary parlance, what people dislike about mixed metaphor is that it tends to combine two different cliches, as in, say, “out of a sea of despair, he has pulled forth a plum.” The metaphorical aspect is actually dimmed, almost to non-existence, by the presence of two or more mixed cliches (which be definition are themselves dim or dead metaphors).

James Wood, How Fiction Works

In other words — a mixed metaphor is fine. Cliches are bad.

The Secret Of Powerful Metaphor

Often the leap toward the counterintuitive, toward the very opposite of the thing you are seeking to compare, is the secret of powerful metaphor. […] Obviously, whenever you liken x to y, you will be drawing attention to the fact that x is really nothing like y, as well as drawing attention to the effort involved in producing such extravagances. The kind of metaphor I most delight in, however […] estranges and then instantly connects, and in doing the latter so well, hides the former. The result is a tiny shock of surprise, followed by a feeling of inevitability.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

(I’ve heard that ‘surprise plus feeling of inevitability’ combo before, elsewhere, in describing ‘the perfect ending’ to a story. So metaphors and endings have a few things in common.)

Metaphor In Children’s Literature

Maurice Saxby tells us that metaphors in children’s literature need to be on the child reader’s level for them to work:

When the image or metaphor is within a child’s range of sensory, emotional, cognitive and moral experience and is expressed in linguistic terms that can be apprehended and comprehended by young readers, a book becomes classed as a children’s one.

Maurice Saxby, Give Them Wings
Lemon girl young adult novella

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