Metaphorical pitfalls (tip 66) Reply

Metaphor: a figure of speech that finds similarities between two things. From the Greek metaphora: meta (among, over, with, beside) and pherein (“to carry”), metaphor literally means to carry one thing into another. It is a way we writers can create infinite shades of meaning, just as an artist can create infinite shades by mixing the colours on her palette. Aristotle believed use of metaphor was a sign of genius. Certainly, it can facilitate economy of expression: to write that one’s room is “like a prison cell” contains a range of meanings that would otherwise take paragraphs to express. But using metaphor isn’t always easy…

Video transcript follows below:

Here are two failed similes allegedly from American high school essays:

‘Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze’

‘John and Mary had never met.  They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.’

Unfortunately, those examples didn’t really come from school essays – they were made up – but many writers can get into terrible problems with metaphor. Like Hemingway. Hemingway was a great writer, but his talent was not for metaphor, and on the rare occasions that he used a metaphor, he was likely to strain. In this passage from A Farewell to Arms, the protagonist has escaped a firing squad and is fleeing World War 1:

You had lost your cars and your men as a floorwalker loses the stock of his department in a fire.  There was, however, no insurance.  You were out of it now.  You had no more obligation.  If they shot floorwalkers after a fire in the department store because they spoke with an accent they had always had, then certainly the floorwalkers would not be expected to return when the store opened again for business.  They might seek other employment; if there was any other employment and the police didn’t get them.

What’s he on about!

On the other hand, given that the value of metaphor is to create a new combination that shows some aspect of the world in a previously unseen way, nothing is as depressing to read as a tired comparison.  Excluding dead metaphors (comparisons that have entered our language to the point that we don’t recognise them as metaphors: ‘he sifted through the possibilities until he found a word that fitted’) you should, as George Orwell advised, avoid using any metaphor you have seen in print before.

Next, if your prose is to soar you must navigate the swamp of mixed metaphors. Mixed metaphors ask us to compare the original image with two unrelated things – ‘The lock tolled like a pistol being cocked.’  As a general rule, if you compare A with B, don’t compare it with C for at least a page (though as with all rules of writing, this one is sometimes worth breaking).

Finally, avoid inappropriate comparisons such as this one from Ian Fleming: “Bond’s knees, the Achilles heel of all skiers, were beginning to break.”

In the next video, I’ll discuss the secret to using metaphor well. Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.


The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Jean-Boris-H. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here:

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