Imagery, figurative illustration, is the protein of prose. Metaphor, a comparison rather than literal description of something (anything), is a tool writers use to evoke it. If made overtly by adding such as ‘like’ or ‘as’, it becomes a simile. For instance, ‘a brooding bungalow’ is a metaphor. Bungalows can’t brood (unless you’re writing some weird fantasy about sentient bricks—hey, good idea!) but this humanising of an object (personification) paints a picture. Now, if you were to say ‘a brooding bungalow set aside from the others like a hermit’, you have a simile, ‘like a hermit’, in addition to your metaphor, and your reader has a powerful image imbued with the layers of meaning and feelings we associate with ‘hermit’ and ‘broody’.
Metaphors paint with words and a picture paints a... I didn’t finish that metaphor because I didn’t need to, you’ve heard it too often. It’s become a dull cliché, and that makes it irritating for the reader. As a rule, you should tread very carefully before using clichéd metaphors. Although, in dialogue, for characterization, (if a character in your story is supposed to be irritating) they could be perfect.
Sometimes well-used metaphors do not become clichéd because the resonance works so well they become invisible, part of the language (lexicon) as accepted as ‘hat’, ‘the’ and ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis’ (I spent a week searching the dictionary for that one). Treading carefully is an example. The whip hand, another. Maybe it’s because, in these two cases,—subconsciously at least—the thrill of the hunt or the fear of the slavers’ lash still echoes deep within us.
Conjuring up original (or at least less hackneyed) metaphors requires inspiration. Don’t rely on it coming while you write. Be prepared when it does. Carry a pen and paper or make sure you have a notepad app on your phone to record it.
There are exercises that help unearth them too. Writing poetry is one, using form not free verse. Form gives poetry rhythm and musicality, and its discipline unearths the unexpected. At the end of this blog I’ve attached a simple poem I wrote about missing summer and wanting winter to bugger off. It’s soaked in vivid metaphors—including one about my bald head—and similes that emerged as the lines became a rant—a rap even. (Notice too, it goes from anger to wistfulness. That’s what they call a ‘dramatic arc’ and I’ll be writing about that in a future blog.)
My next post will be about poetic forms. Forms you may want to try out yourself, that will force you to juggle words and, hopefully, release the unexpected. A chance to get your metaphorical leotards on and have a workout. ‘Juggle’ and ‘workout’ is that a mixed metaphor?? Tut-tut if it is.
Ps: ‘Mist’ in the poem’s title is an intentional homophone, meaning a word that sounds like another—‘missed’ in this case—but is spelled differently. (By now you’re realising how nutty I am about words—love ‘em.)
I hate you and your busy fingered gropes,
Your spittle drenching breath too close. It smells
Why don’t you catch the next plane to Moscow
And enjoy the duty free delights of
Icing the Moskva and those cones and domes
Of gold? They’d laugh at your bitter asides
And wild excesses. Why not drift away
And play with your Siberian comrades?
They love your tasteless maids,
Those north and east winds in snowflake dresses
Blindingly beautiful on arctic dance floors
with crystal irises blue and razored;
Steam hot but ice cold like Vegas whores.
They’d welcome your numb nose in Greenland too
And appreciate your full milky hills
And dark cleavages.
There, Inuits and explorers in wool and fur
Care about your biting charms. See them smile,
Leather faced and icicled-eyed, to camera
In your lifeless white utopia. Go,
Rattle Reykjavik’s corrugated walls
And freeze trawlermen’s hands to cod and ling,
But let me feel
Again that hot Andalusian sun.
My hairless head wants a curious orange
Rising high from Granada or Seville
And polished by the fluff of clean fat clouds
To pour down its breeze-softened sun showers
And begin the crude striptease of summer.
I want to hear
Blackbirds and rubbish rap through open windows;
See families row through barbeque smoke;
Touch love and laze on a crowded beach,
Burnt eyed, sand roughened, and salt blistered.
I want it all back: the smell of wormed earth
And rot and rose and oregano and thyme.
I ran from your thunder and flashes,
Your acid rain and long shadows, but
I miss your sultry kisses and close evening
Whispers. Whisper and kiss again.
This week’s Book review/recommendation: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom is a family saga that charts the lives of the Berglund’s as they pursue their ambitions, deal with their angsts and make their (often) disastrous choices—the pitfalls of freedom. The writing is breezy but full of wit and intelligence and carries you along like a thriller. Franzen has a wonderful eye for the absurd in the commonplace, sees the strength in weakness and weakness in strength. It is one of those books I’ve put back on the shelf to read again. And, no, you can’t borrow it.
Martin’s first novel, Conjuring the Blood, a terrorist thriller and redemption tale, and a short story, Poor Bee, about poisoned love, are available on Amazon.