Do You Dare To Eat A Peach?
Finding the Perfect Metaphor

I want to paint the way a bird sings. — Claude Monet

By PJ Parrish

I don’t want to burst your bubble, but coming up with metaphors and similes is hard. Bad ones are a dime a dozen and coming up with good ones is like banging your head against a brick wall. You will be tempted to farm the over-tilled soil, tread the road already taken, resort to the tried and true. But you have to look through the rain to see the rainbow.

I guess you know my topic for today. I’ve written about it before here at TKZ, but I read something on this subject yesterday that had an impact on me, and I’d like to share it.

First, I don’t know about you, but I could use a quick primer of definitions.

Allusion: A brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance. He’s a real Romeo. She’s on a quixotic quest. This will open a real Pandora’s box

Then we get to the Three Amigos – analogy, metaphor and simile. Even as an English Lit major, I got these confused. Still do. So I found this easy guide on Daniel Miessler’s blog:

Analogies compare things so that you can see a relationship between them. There are many ways to do it, but the key thing is comparing one thing to another.

Similes do this by saying something is “like” or “as” something else. He’s like a wall. She’s as smart as a whip. Her temper was like a storm.

Metaphors do this by saying something “is” something else. That test was murder. The company was a sinking ship. The campaign is a dumpster fire.

Got it? Now here’s what got me thinking about this — a feature called New Sentences in the Sunday New York Times magazine. In it, Sam Anderson analyzes a metaphor from Paul Yoon’s short story “The Mountain.”

She reached down with a gentleness that reminded Faye of an arm underwater, the completion of a stroke.

Anderson then weighs in with the story’s context:

In the middle of the night, a woman sits alone on the ground, ill and exhausted. She is a factory worker in China. A truck full of people happens to pass by. It stops. A woman inside reaches down in a gesture of care – a surprisingly tender moment in an otherwise brutal world. The narrator’s description is perfect.

Describing nonverbal communication is tricky. As human animals we are fluent in a vast, complex language of gesture and posture and expression. But how do we translate that nonverbal language into verbal language? There are plenty of words for it: People smirk, loom, flinch, slump, scowl, tremble, stride, nod, stare. Even such vivid verbs are only rough approximations of the expressive richness of the motions they describe.

An arm reaching down is one of the more familiar movements in the human lexicon. It can express all kinds of things, from menace to boredom to exhaustion. The narrator’s description here transposes that familiar gesture into a different element altogether. The end of a swimming stroke is something we normally don’t see; it happens as a kind of footnote, underwater to the visible part of the stroke. The drag on the arm, which in the swimming stroke would be provided by the resistance of the water, is here a result of an emotion, a gentleness.

I love that. Love the swimming image and love what Sam Anderson saw in it.

Metaphors and similes are maybe the most precise tools in our writer’s toolbox. We all know how much beauty and power they can add to our fiction. But like anything powerful, they can backfire badly. (See first paragraph). When they work, they elevate your story, illuminate your characters and make your readers go, “Yes! I know what that is like!”  When they fail, they make you look like a fool.

Coming up with rich and original metaphors and similes is really hard. No other way to say that. And in the heat of a deadline or the frustration of the daily writing grind, we’ve all veered off onto the cliche road. If you find yourself going there, read THIS. It’s a handy list of bad metaphors. Avoid them like the plague.

Where to go for good inspiration? The Bible is rich in beautiful metaphors. The main one, of course, is Jesus’s description of himself — “I am the good shepherd…and I lay down my life for the sheep.” — John 10:14-15

Ditto for Shakespeare who told us that our world is a stage and we poor novelists are merely strutting our time upon it. When Romeo describes Juliet, it is with this beautiful Valentine: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Back in my lit classes, I had several forced encounters with TS Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” So many in fact, I grew to hate this poem. Last spring, when I was winnowing out my books in anticipation of our move, I found my college copy of Eliot’s collected poems. Don’t know what made me go back to Prufrock, but I did.  Do you remember the opening line?

Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table.

And go I did. I couldn’t stop reading after that. The sparkling and startling metaphors and similes kept coming and coming. Sea imagery about mermaids “combing the white hair of the waves blown back.” “I am pinned and wriggling on the wall.” “Ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” And of course, the fog — “a yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.”

Why does the fog image work? It conveys mood. The fog is a menacing beast stalking a city of “one-night cheap motels and streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent.” Eliot has said this was inspired by the yellow smog he saw spewing from factories in his hometown St. Louis. But he was also a cat lover — he wrote the book on which the musical Cats was based – so the feline image is there.

Compare this to Carl Sandberg’s fog which “comes in on little cat feet and sits looking over the harbor on its haunches before it moves on.”

Why does this work? It also conveys mood, in this case mystery and silkiness. It is accurate and immediately recognizable (who hasn’t seen a slinking cat?). Even its alliterative “H” makes you think of softness, like a slow exhale in misty air.

Back to Prufrock…

I always thought this was an odd line — “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” When I was in college, I figured this was a metaphor for indecision, which relates to the opening image of paralysis (etherized patient) and a later reference to Hamlet. But when I read it recently, it was though the lens of a 66-year-old woman, so the metaphors and similes now seem to be more about rationing your time on earth at the expense of experiencing joy. Eliot was a mere pup of a grad student when he wrote this, but said he was imagining his narrator as a “man of about 40.” So who knows?

It does make me think of one of another of my favorite metaphors, from Groucho Marx: “A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.”

So how do you know if your metaphors and similes are working? Boy, I wish I could tell you for sure, but there’s no easy way. It’s a feeling, I think. It’s like that finding that sweet spot in the tennis racket – you can just feel it. Or when you hit a homer. You know you’ve connected and that it’s going out.

Let’s extend the sports metaphor: I don’t play golf but my best friend Linda does. She took a lot of lessons, trying to do all the right things with her grip, stance, breathing, etc. But she could never seem to hit a good tee shot. One day, frustrated and angry, she finally “let it go” and just hit the ball. It went far and true. She realized she was getting so hung up on the all rules about technique that she had lost her natural flow.

The great golfer Bobby Jones tells the story about his father’s frustration during a round of bad ball striking. Angrily he made a perfect practice swing and asked Jones, “Now what’s the matter with that swing?” To which Jones replied, “Nothing. Why don’t you use it sometime?”

My friend Linda got rid of her golf instructor. Her game is improving and she’s having fun. So it is with metaphors and such. If you try too hard, you’ll whiff every time. Many of you participate in the National Novel Writing Month exercise or write poetry, and I’ll bet you come up with some great creative stuff only to tense up when you turn to your novel. I know I’ve seen writers in workshops produce terrific stuff — amazing themselves! — when I give them five-minute writing drills.

Well, maybe you have to learn to use the rhythmic swing you’ve developed during “practice swings” and use them in actual play.  You’ll feel it when it’s good.

And when it’s bad? Come on, you know what that feels like, too, right? When you’ve laid down a metaphoric mound of writing poop, you know in your gut it’s bad. Because it didn’t come from your experience but from somewhere else. Or worse, from somebody else.

Here’s a rule. Yeah, I know, we don’t have rules, but I’m breaking the rule and giving you a rule.

If you’re ever in doubt as to whether or not you’ve pulled a metaphor off, cut it out.

That’s it. Don’t listen to your ego (“But I worked so hard to come up with that!”) Don’t listen to your inner artiste. (“But it’s so beautiful!” Yeah, just like all babies are beautiful, right?) The first goal of fiction is communication, reaching your reader emotionally. You don’t need to dazzle and you don’t want to distract.

Now go hit some tee shots.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

34 thoughts on “Do You Dare To Eat A Peach?
Finding the Perfect Metaphor

  1. “If you’re ever in doubt as to whether or not you’ve pulled a metaphor off, cut it out.”

    Which is why I have so few of them in my books. (And most of the ones I leave in, my editor deletes.)

    I took a workshop where a noted coach stressed using your Three Amigos (I can never remember which is which) to evoke visceral responses in the reader. But some authors I know cram dozens of them into each chapter. For me, if I hit 3 good ones in a book, I’m happy. Maybe I lack the patience to find the good ones. One of my early writing buddies was very good at coming up with them, but frankly, to me, a lot of times, it slows the read for me because then there are two things to think about — what the author said (his hair stood on end) which I can see, and then the “like” of however he describes it. If that makes any sense.

    But done well – those stop me too, because I think I’m a total failure and I’ll never write like that. I recall reading a CJ Box where he said (paraphrasing) “ducks and geese scattered the lake like errant punctuation.” I loved that and asked him at what point he came up with it. When he said , “Oh, I remember that one. That just seemed right as I was writing.” (or words to that effect.)

    (On another note, he used that same errant punctuation in another book in a different context, and it spoiled things for me. Good ones, IMHO, should have a one time use expiration.)

    Sorry this got so long.

    • Don’t apologize for a good long post….it brightens the conversation. I couldn’t agree more with you, Terry, on the idea that less is more. Too many images (pick your Amigo) and you are no longer dazzled, you are blinded.

      I think I average maybe three a book if I am lucky. And like CJ, I can remember vividly all the good ones and what they felt like when they came to me. (That sweet spot I mentioned). One I really loved was when I was describing the landscape of the lower part of Florida where the wild Everglades’s Thousand Islands meet the gulf. I compared it to the end of a tattered flag. 🙂

      I won’t mention any of the hundreds I deleted over the years. Wish I could think of one just for fun.

  2. I love a good analogy or simile. For me, it makes the story come alive in unexpected ways. Bad ones, of course, have the opposite effect, but I think we can learn from those too. Love your advice about not forcing it. The best ones come while in the zone.

    This is such an excellent post, Kris. And so helpful. I’m off to check out the list. Thank you! You could not have picked a more perfect time.

  3. PJ — (Kristy & Kelly), you hit this one out of the park. What a terrific analysis of the metaphor and her cousins. As I read your post, my head nodding uncontrollably in agreement with your take, I thought about all my failed attempts to craft “the” metaphor that my readers would remember. The sad result was as you described, disastrous disappointment. When the going gets tough, the tough get a thesaurus.
    Thanks for the insightful post.
    Walter

    • I was trying hard to remember a bad metaphor I wrote, Walter, and I finally came up with one. In one of my romances I had the snow glittering like…wait for it…diamonds.

      Wow, I really worked hard on that.

  4. TS Eliot’s poetry and short fiction are master classes in images as metaphors and similes. Not only are they visceral, but they are structural as plot devices. In other words, the changes in images tell the story as much as the other words do. “Prufrock” is a good example of this, and, if you can find an annotated “The Waste Land,” it’s well worth the time and effort to study. On the short fiction front, I recommend “A Beast in the Jungle” and the ghost story “The Jolly Corner.”

    On the genre side of things, Stephen King picks just the right images and metaphors to create what I call the fear archetype.

    Genre writers have to be careful, though, because a too good or complex metaphor can stop the reader who must back up and say “wow, that was great.” Stopping the reader is the ultimate no no in genre fiction.

    Not using images as metaphors, etc., is a great mistake because brain scientists have discovered that the brain really fires up the emotions as you read metaphors and strong images. They are what make the reader do more than skim and forget what you’ve written.

    I have a number of articles on using images, particularly as archetypes, on my writing blog. Here:

    http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/search/label/archetype

    For more around this subject, click on the labels “Suspense” and “Description.”

    • I did hear a writer on a panel once liken metaphor writing to sex. You know, if you try to hard nothing happens? But isn’t it great when the stars align and you score? With metaphors I mean.

  5. Great piece. I wasn’t an English major and, so, didn’t have the benefit of studying these things formally. I tend to let metaphors and the rest just happen in my fiction instead of trying to be deliberate about it. I would say that at least half the time they find their way into the finished book. The rest are tossed into a Hefty bag and left at the curb.

  6. A good metaphor gives me an emotional reaction, and I’ll read right past that page, later thinking, What was it about that passage that made me feel so angry (dizzy, cold)? Then when I go back and look, I find similes and metaphors so smoothly woven into the text that they simply don’t disturb my reading, but they still color the passage. I think Chaim Potok was an expert at doing that. And he’d sneak them into dialogue, too, so you think that’s just the way the character talks, not that the Potok was trying too hard to be artistic.

    • Exactly. If you go back and read the Dec. 2 post here by Joe where he is doing a First Page Critique, in the submission, there’s this line describing the aftermath of a plane crash:

      “In the waning-sunset gloom, scattered islands of yellow flames flickered in a huge sea of shattered metal.”

      Everyone loved it. Why? Because it was fresh and visceral. And if I recall, it was the only metaphor the writer used, so it stood out even more.

  7. Very timely. Thanks. I just finished a book where the author followed a rule requiring at least two figures of speech for every three pages. It was her first book and had enough other merit that others followed. I trust they got better in this aspect.

    But her style raised a question that I’d like to see addressed:

    Should the narrator’s metaphors (part of the narrator’s voice) be different somehow from those of a character (whether we’re just in the character’s POV or in the character’s head with internal dialogue)? I suppose this is a special case of the more general problem of keeping POV clear (and may require a separate post by one of the KZB masters).

    Metaphor, for me, means Chandler. But we’re (almost?) always in Marlowe’s POV, so my question doesn’t arise in his case.

    • Excellent question Eric. I think it goes to the point we talk about here often about intimate or deep POV. If you are in deep POV, everything in the narrative is filtered through the character’s consciousness so thus the metaphors etc. must emerge from his/her experience only. ie an inner-city teen boy is not going to think in flowery rural images — unless you as the writer are trying to make the point that his vivid imaginations allows him to go to such places.

      We could use a master class post on this — when in deep POV how do you tailor the images, vocabulary, syntax etc — to reflect this? Or when can you veer out (and up) into a more omniscient POV and thus to a different way of seeing the world?

      Speaking of Marlowe and his ilk, you made me think of the great opening of Hammett’s Maltese Falcon:

      Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another smaller V. His yellow-gray eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down — from high flat temples — in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

      So who’s POV are we in? The disembodied narrator of course. If I remember, the whole book stays there pretty much. Yet somehow we FEEL like we’re in Spade’s head.

      And the ending is terrific. His confidante secretary Effie rebuffs him because she’s disappointed in him and his amorality (that’s how I read it anyway). And Hammett ends with:

      “I know you’re right. But don’t touch now — not now.”
      Spade’s face became paler than his collar.
      The corridor’s knob rattled. Effie Perine turned quickly and went into the outer office, shutting the door behind her. When she came in again, she shut it behind her.
      She said in a small flat voice: “Iva is here.”
      Spade, looking down at his desk, nodded almost imperceptively. “Yes,” he said and shivered. “Well, send her in.”

      I love that. We’re not in Spade’s POV yet Hammett tells us that he is troubled. But by what, we’re not sure. I’m a sucker for ambiguous endings.

      • I was about to ask/mention that, especially with cliches. I write in Deep POV, so everything is filtered through my characters. People think/talk in cliches, in “mundane” expressions. Maybe this is just my excuse for not being able to come up with brilliance, but if my small town character is on a Caribbean cruise, her first experience with the vast ocean, to her the sun sparkling off the water just might look like diamonds because she’s not the sort to “wax poetic” …

        • I agree. Sometimes a prosaic image fits your character’s true personality. If you’ve done a good job building her as credible, a overtly poetic metaphor would ring false. My first book was set in rural Mississippi and I was on the phone constantly with my friend Phillip who was born and raised in Tupelo. He was constantly giving me good “southernisms” that fit my folks. ie…a hard rain is like a cow… well, this is PG so I can’t repeat it here. 🙂

  8. JSB always talks about brainstorming lots of things, e.g., lots of endings, and then discarding all but the best. This would seem to apply to figures of speech as well.

  9. May I use an example from–what else?–a movie?

    In Karate Kid III, Daniel is sucked into the dojo being built by disgraced karate instructor, John Kreese, whose previous business was busted after Mr. Miyagi humiliated him in the parking lot after the tournament that brought success to Daniel.

    Kreese is being helped in his rebuild by Terry Silver, a Vietnam war buddy.

    Kreese and Silver hope to bring humiliation and revenge onto Daniel by having a protege continually pick fights with Daniel.

    Which is why Daniel is sucked into the dojo–to further humiliate and punish him with hoped-for beatings.

    Daniel tries to leave, is intercepted, assaulted by the protege, but finally is able to run out the door.

    Silver sends the protege after Daniel so they can harm him some more. The protege is thrown back into the dojo by Mr. Miyaga, who just then arrived outside the dojo.

    The protege, momentarily intimidated, pauses. “What’re you waiting for?” silver asks. The protege charges forward. Mr. Miyagi grabs him, throws him into the wall close to the light switch. The protege does not touch the switch but the lights go out. The light switches are still in the on position.

    One commenter on the YouTube excerpt of the scene presumes this to be a movie goof, and another one compliments him on spotting the goof.

    But the power failure and the blow near the switch that caused it, are because of faulty workmanship–corruption in the building process. They are a metaphor for a whole lot of things, among them the faulty principles and characters of Kreese and Silver, corrupt thugs actually, who are trying to build the business. Their characters, integrity, cruelty, and fighting skills are morally bankrupt, undeveloped, and unworthy of being passed on to anyone, especially young would-be fighters who want to come Kreese for instruction.

    The single blow to the wall near the light switch, interrupting the electrical power to the dojo, is followed by the horrid beating that Mr. Miyagi, a man who holds no karate degrees–belts, he has a canvas belt–inflicts on both Silver and Kreese. Mr. Miyagi’s knowledge, skill, and wisdom overcome the corruption and things-of-appearance that Silver and Kreese have come to believe will help them succeed in the rebuilding of the business.

    That Mr. Miyagi has truly beaten the characterless, pretenders to karate skill and technology is illustrated when he waves his hands in the face of Silver, whom he has just pushed into a mirror and broken it (another metaphor), and makes Bruce Lee-like whoos and sounds. Before his fight with Mr. Miyagai began, Silver had made such sounds and gestures in Mr. Miyag’s face. Mr. Miyagi is saying to him that noises and whoos are not skills of karate, but nonsense and silliness. They are the gestures and sounds of failure.

    The important thing is, Mr. Miyagi didn’t even have to disable the light switch to make the energy fail. The failure was built into the shoddiness of the electrical work.

    • Ah yes, the metaphor in service to the greater theme. Dontcha love it? We can go crazy with that idea — the white whale, the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock, the monolith in 2001 Space Odyssey though nobody seems to know what it means.

      Thanks for the enlightening trip to the dojo, grasshopper.

      • I know what the monolith in 2001 is. It now is that thing that I didn’t have a clue what it meant until my 14-year-old sat me down and explained it to me.

  10. I’ve been collecting good and bad examples of figurative language since 2011 at a Facebook page called Sentence Me. Feel free to join, enjoy (or not) thousands of instances of writers stretching themselves add, and contribute ones from your own writing and reading.

    I might add that Googling the annual Bad Sex In Fiction Award winners is a great way to see what NOT. Before this year’s award, I spotlighted the winner: “Her face and vagina were distracting me, so I glanced down at the billiard rack of my penis and testicles.”

  11. Take a walk with me through ancient Sumer, where the wheel and writing haven’t been invented, not a horse nor a camel grace the horizon. The quickest way between points A and B is a boat. Otherwise, it’s your own feet.

    So many word pictures depend on our present and near past for context. By placing my story in Iraq 5,000 years ago I was challenged to dig up facts, not artifacts, but giving those alien Sumerians touches of humanity today’s readership can understand was a lesson in failures. I’m told I hit the mark, but I’ve miles to go with the series.

    Thanks so much for bringing this subject to my attention, P. J. My next series is contemporary thriller. I pledge herein to avoid bad metaphors like the plague.

  12. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers and Readers 12-07-2017 | The Author Chronicles

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