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Using Metaphors in Creative Writing

Summary:

This handout discusses the writing obstacles most frequently faced by beginning poets and fiction writers and will offer tactics for addressing these issues during a tutorial.

What is a metaphor?

The term metaphor meant in Greek "carry something across" or "transfer," which suggests many of the more elaborate definitions below:

Metaphor Table
Definition Origin
A comparison between two things, based on resemblance or similarity, without using "like" or "as" most dictionaries and textbooks
The act of giving a thing a name that belongs to something else Aristotle
The transferring of things and words from their proper signification to an improper similitude for the sake of beauty, necessity, polish, or emphasis Diomedes
A device for seeing something in terms of something else Kenneth Burke
Understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another John Searle
A simile contracted to its smallest dimensions Joseph Priestly

Related terms

Related Terms Table
extended or telescoping metaphor: A sustained metaphor. The teacher descended upon the exams, sank his talons into their pages, ripped the answers to shreds, and then, perching in his chair, began to digest.
implied metaphor : A less direct metaphor. John swelled and ruffled his plumage. (versus John was a peacock)
mixed metaphor: The awkward, often silly use of more than one metaphor at a time. To be avoided! The movie struck a spark that massaged the audience's conscience.
dead metaphor: A commonly used metaphor that has become over time part of ordinary language. tying up loose ends, a submarine sandwich, a branch of government, and most clichés
simile: A comparison using "like" or "as" Her face was pale as the moon.
metonym: The substitution of one term for another with which it is commonly associated or closely related. the pen is mightier than the sword, the crown (referring to a Queen or King), hands (referring to workers who use their hands)
synecdoche: The substitution of a part for the whole or vice versa (a kind of metonym). give us this day our daily bread

Why use metaphors?

  • They enliven ordinary language.

    People get so accustomed to using the same words and phrases over and over, and always in the same ways, that they no longer know what they mean. Creative writers have the power to make the ordinary strange and the strange ordinary, making life interesting again.

  • They are generous to readers and listeners; they encourage interpretation.

    When readers or listeners encounter a phrase or word that cannot be interpreted literally, they have to think—or rather, they are given the pleasure of interpretation. If you write "I am frustrated" or "The air was cold" you give your readers nothing to do—they say "so what?" On the other hand, if you say, "My ambition was Hiroshima, after the bombing," your readers can think about and choose from many possible meanings.

  • They are more efficient and economical than ordinary language; they give maximum meaning with a minimum of words.

    By writing "my dorm is a prison," you suggest to your readers that you feel as though you were placed in solitary, you are fed lousy food, you are deprived of all of life's great pleasures, your room is poorly lit and cramped—and a hundred other things, that, if you tried to say them all, would probably take several pages.

  • They create new meanings; they allow you to write about feelings, thoughts, things, experiences, etc., for which there are no easy words; they are necessary.

    There are many gaps in language. When a child looks at the sky and sees a star but does not know the word "star," she is forced to say, "Mommy, look at the lamp in the sky!" Similarly, when computer software developers created boxes on the screen as a user interface, they needed a new language; the result was windows. In your poems, you will often be trying to write about subjects, feelings, etc., so complex that you have no choice but to use metaphors.

  • They are a sign of genius.

    Or so says Aristotle in Poetics: "[T]he greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor." It is "a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars."

Creative ways to use metaphors

Most books give rather boring examples of metaphors such as my father is a bear or the librarian was a beast. However, in your poetry (and fiction for that matter) you can do much more than say X is Y, like an algebraic formula. Definitely play with extended metaphors (see above) and experiment with some of the following, using metaphors...

Uses of Metaphors
as verbs The news that ignited his face snuffed out her smile.
as adjectives and adverbs Her carnivorous pencil carved up Susan's devotion.
as prepositional phrases The doctor inspected the rash with a vulture's eye.
as appositives or modifiers On the sidewalk was yesterday's paper, an ink-stained sponge.

Examples

Metaphor Table
Scratching at the window with claws of pine, the wind wants in. Imogene Bolls, "Coyote Wind"
What a thrill—my thumb instead of an onion. The top quite gone except for a sort of hinge of skin....A celebration this is. Out of a gap a million soldiers run, redcoats every one. Sylvia Plath, "Cut"
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies, like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes. Robert Frost, "Once by the Pacific"
Little boys lie still, awake wondering, wondering delicate little boxes of dust. James Wright, "The Undermining of the Defense Economy"
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Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.