Last week I wrote about Three Keys to Memorable Metaphors and Similes. This week I think we need to look at the biggest gaffes we can accidentally make when trying to write a metaphor or simile. It’s one thing to make these fumbles if you’re trying to write corny humor. It’s an entirely different thing to make them accidentally. (It’s the difference between people laughing with you and laughing at you.)
I’m going to use “metaphor” to stand in for both metaphors and similes in this post. Many of the mistakes we make with metaphors can be made with similes as well (and vice versa).
Clichéd metaphors are just the tip of the iceberg, but they’re as common as fleas on a dog. They’re a loose cannon in your manuscript. Even if your novel is fit as a fiddle in every other way, go the extra mile and find a fresher way to guild the lily. Just food for thought.
If you’re looking for a list of clichéd metaphors and similes, check out MetaphorsandSimiles.com.
Mixed metaphors are as groan inducing as a bad comedian without a paddle.
They jumble two or more unrelated metaphors together for a ridiculous and impossible result.
He’s burning the midnight oil from both ends.
A leopard can’t change his stripes.
“All at once he was alone in this noisy hive with no place to roost.”
(Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities)
When you write a metaphor, make sure all parts contribute to one unified image.
An ambiguous metaphor is one with many potential meanings.
She was like a dog.
This could be a compliment. She was like a dog, always loyal no matter how many times he lost his temper. It could be less flattering. She was like a dog, always in need of a breath mint. It could be downright insulting. She was like a dog, not caring who she slept with as long as she got laid.
Unless you expand on what you mean, your reader won’t know where you’re headed with the metaphor or simile and they’ll add their own meaning to it…which may not be the one you intended. Whenever possible, choose a metaphor where the meaning can’t be confused.
Inappropriate metaphors come in two varieties. The first is the easiest to avoid. You don’t want to introduce an anachronism into your historical fiction, science fiction, or fantasy through your metaphors.
Her memories were lost forever like the treasures buried with the Titanic.
If you’re writing a fantasy, did the Titanic exist on your world? If you’re writing historical fiction, did the Titanic sink long enough before your story takes place that your hero would be aware of it? If you’re writing science fiction, would the Titanic still be as iconic to them as it is to us or would another bigger disaster have supplanted it.
The second inappropriate metaphor happens when our search for a unique turn of phrase blinds us to the connotations of the words we’re using.
Her skin glowed pink like the flesh of an ocean salmon.
I can’t imagine anyone taking it as a compliment to have their skin compared to a fish. The only way a simile like this works is if your character is a socially awkward fisherman and you’re using it to characterize how little he understands women.
I love when an author uses a point of view so intimate even the figures of speech fit the way their character sees and interprets the world.
In a contemporary romance I’ve been tinkering with, my science teacher character blushes upon meeting her future love interest.
Her face smoldered as if she’d bent too close over one of the Bunsen burners used in her class.
This works because most of us were in science class. We know what a Bunsen burner is. We can imagine the heat.
It wouldn’t work if I wrote the following.
Her face radiated heat like transuranic elements.
Unless you’re a scientist, you won’t know that transuranic elements are one of the components in highly radioactive material. So while this is an interesting simile (and you could maybe pull it off in a science fiction novel), it doesn’t work as well because the simile doesn’t add anything more to our understanding than we’d get from “her face radiated heat.” The reference is too obscure.
Extended metaphors can be extremely powerful, but they’re usually used as a tongue-in-cheek form of humor. The New Yorker ran a humor piece called “Trade” by Simon Rich in May 2011 that’s basically an extended metaphor comparing a baseball trade with being broken up with.
However, not every metaphor is meant to be pushed that far.
“Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.”
(Matt Groening, The Big Book of Hell: The Best of Life in Hell)
Groening was aiming to be funny, but imagine if he’d been serious. I’m not sure how all the pieces of this metaphor are expected to match up with love.
Extend your metaphors wisely.
Want to have some fun? I’d love to have you share the worst metaphor or simile you can come up with.
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