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.