The secret to using metaphor (tip 67) 2

A commenter on a previous video noted that “You can get carried away saying ‘this is like this and this is like this and this is like this.’ It can reach the point where you just want to say ‘shut up and get on with the plot.’” It’s a fair point and I agree that in most instances you need a good reason to use a metaphor. Usually, for a metaphor to be worthwhile, it has to do at least two things. Find out what in our latest video.

The secret to metaphor is that usually every comparison must do at least two things. First, there needs to be a vehicle for the metaphor: usually this is some sensory similarity between the things being compared. Suppose you’re describing a woman who has an uncommonly round head. You can’t say her head looks like a ladder, because, well, it doesn’t. But you could say that her head looked like… a basketball or an orange. But if the only way her head is like a basketball or an orange is that both are round, then why not just say that she had an uncommonly round head?

So, in addition to there existing some understandable similarity, in order for the comparison to be worthwhile, that similarity has to be a vehicle that carries some other association.

For instance, in “A good man is hard to find,” Flannery O’Connor wants to describe a peasant woman’s face. And it so happens that said peasant woman has an uncommonly round face. Now, O’Connor could write that the woman had a face as round and innocent as a football. But if the only way that the woman’s face is like the football is that both are round, then why not just say that the woman has a round face?

So, instead, O’Connor writes that the woman’s face is “as round and innocent as a cabbage.” The sensory comparison is still there – it’s stronger, perhaps – but the metaphor now carries a range of associations. A cabbage is a simple, rural, earthy thing, and so is the woman with the round face.

Sticking with cabbages – I like them – here’s another example. In Liza’s England, Pat Barker wants to describe Stephen’s father’s garden. She writes: “The back garden had a vegetable patch, neglected since his father’s illness. Yellow stumps of cabbages stuck up like…” Like what? “decayed teeth.” There is a sensory comparison between decayed teeth and these rotting, untended cabbages, but the metaphor also reinforces the sense of decline, illness, mortality. It helps to convey the horror of sickness and death.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.


The O’Connor example is taken from advice on metaphor by Janet Burroway’s excellent Writing Fiction. The thumbnail for this video uses an image by adil113. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of their work here:


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