6 Ways Your Metaphors Are Hurting Your Novel

No Cliches AllowedBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

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

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

Mixed Metaphors

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.

Ambiguous Metaphors

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

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.

Obscure Metaphors

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.

Over-Extended Metaphors

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.

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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Three Keys to Memorable Similes and Metaphors

Metaphors and Similes in FictionBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Metaphors and similes are one of the keys to memorable stories because they create images that tap into our emotions. They stick in our minds because they give us something tangible to hang on to.

A simile uses like or as to compare two different things.

A metaphor goes a step deeper. Instead of saying something is like something else, they say something is a different thing.

Unfortunately, metaphors and similes don’t inherently help our book. Flat ones are forgettable. We have to make them memorable.

Memorable Figures of Speech Are Fresh and Unexpected

George Orwell advised, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” His point was that if you’ve seen it in other books before, it’s no longer fresh. It might even be verging on clichéd.

The best metaphors and similes stick in people’s minds because they don’t remember ever hearing them before.

Let’s look at a couple examples.

In her book The Spirit Thief, Rachel Aaron uses a metaphor to describe Miranda’s angry tone of voice. She could have chosen an overused simile such as her voice was cold as ice. Instead, here’s what she wrote…

Her voice would have frozen a boiling pot (147).

Not only was this metaphor fresh, but it also fit the funny, quirky tone of the book.

In The Doctor’s Lady, Jody Hedlund could have described her hero’s mother as mousy or faded, but here’s what she chose…

Pale and colorless, like the listless smoke that hung in the air.

Reading that, you can see a woman who’s given up on life. She exists, but she’s not really there emotionally. She’s frail not only in body, but also in mind.

Memorable Figures of Speech Enhance Our Understanding of the Familiar

Oftentimes, we’ll use a metaphor or simile to describe something every reader will be familiar with. These figures of speech are in the most danger of running into clichéd territory.

In this situation, we have to use our simile or metaphor to help our reader understand what we’re describing in a new way. We want them to have the gut reaction of “Yes, that’s exactly how it feels. She just put into words something I’ve known all along but haven’t been able to articulate.”

Listen to how Kathryn Stockett described Skeeter’s feeling of dread in The Help.

The dread in my stomach is flat and hard and hot, like a brick in the sun (pg. 178).

Not only does that perfectly describe dread, but it does it in a way that suits the character of Skeeter.

Memorable Figures of Speech Help Us Experience the Unfamiliar

If you’re writing about something your reader will likely have no experience with, choose a simile that will let them equate it with something they’ll know.

Later on in The Help, Minnie, a black maid, bursts into the bathroom to help her sick employer. Celia lies on the floor, covered in blood after miscarrying her baby. Here’s how Stockett chose to describe the dead baby…

It smells like meat, like hamburger defrosting on the counter (pg. 232).

It’s a situation very few of us will have experienced, so Stockett associated something unfamiliar with something familiar, allowing us to play an intimate part in a foreign experience. We no longer have to have personal experience with a miscarried child to know what it smells like.

Do you have a favorite metaphor? If you’re brave enough, share a flat description from your current work in progress and how you rewrote it to make it memorable. I’d love to read them!

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” button. You can also join me on my Facebook page.

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