Metaphor: an example (tip 68) 2

Here’s something for the romantics: an example of how to deploy metaphor to convey ideas of romance succinctly. In this video D.D. Johnston takes a process that is often unconscious and shows how and why we can arrive at the right image.


Imagine you’re writing about a couple who have a really happy first date. You could write, “It was a romantic occasion, and the couple were so intent on each other that hours passed and they hardly noticed.” But that’s kind of bland and vague; it denies the joy of interpretation; it’s telling rather than showing. How can you show these things? How can you show that ‘it is a romantic occasion, and the couple – let’s call them Claude and Roger – are so intent on each other that hours pass and they hardly notice’?

So we find ourselves searching for some concrete thing that conveys both romance and the passage of time. For instance, what about candles? Candles are nice, right? You like candles? I like candles. A candle-lit dinner conveys romance, but a candle can also mark the passage of time, because it melts and shortens, right?

Now, you could write, “they sat until the candle had burned right down to the wick,” but that’s rather tired and obvious. It’s not a very original phrase. And if your writing seems a bit unoriginal, often the secret is to be more specific. So, what are these particular candles like? What sort of candles would Claude put out?

I don’t think it would be a love heart candle – it’s a first date! And I think that candle looks a bit too religious and that one looks like something you’d put in your bathroom. And I don’t think he’d have candlesticks. This guy – Claude – who has cooked dinner, is a PhD student, studying… Derrida and… toilet etiquette. He’s cultured, but he’s not wealthy. And he lives in a basement flat, where geraniums fall over his kitchen window, and this is, for Claude, a temporary home. He’s not yet dug in for life. He’s not yet acquired candlesticks.

So how does he fix the candles? Well, he likes wine so maybe he sticks some candles in empty wine bottles. And now we’re getting somewhere, because now there’s a very clear visualisation of the passage of time. We could write, “they sat until the candles had dripped trails of wax the length of the empty wine bottles.” It’s an improvement, right?

But you want to compact this; you want to turn this into a metaphor. So what sensory impression do we get from dripping wax… it’s hot but the heat is brief and that doesn’t convey the passing of time. What else? It doesn’t smell and you’re hardly likely to taste it. But it looks distinctive… It looks like… Like what?

It looks like… tentacles. Right? That’s perfect – tentacles of wax. Right? But, no! That goes against the whole romantic atmosphere. How are poor Claude and Roger going to get it on when everyone’s thinking about slimy slithery scaly tentacles?

What about bolts of lightning? “There were sparks of candle wax lightning on the bottles between Claude and Roger.” No, no, no: lightning is a brief thing; it certainly doesn’t convey the passing of time.

What about icicles or stalactites? Now, that’s good: that conveys the passage of time, and captures the shape of the wax on the bottle. But icicles and stalactites suggest freezing cold and dark caves – they act against all our metaphors for love and romance – the fire of love, the warm atmosphere, the kindling romance, the burning passion. Sure, if we were writing about a long, uncomfortable evening where two characters who dislike each other struggle to find things to talk about then the stalactites or the icicles of wax on the empty bottles would be very apt, but it’s not right for our scene. It’s not right for the blossoming love between Roger and Claude.

Blossoming… What about the roots of a tree? Visually the comparison is not so strong, but a tree takes time to develop roots. Also, this metaphor suggests new growth, spring, optimism, just as the characters are at the beginning of a new relationship. We could be onto something here: “They sat until the candle wax dripped like roots on the empty wine bottles.” And yet that sounds weird and clumsy somehow. So we can consider different types of comparison. What if we make it a metaphor instead of a simile? “They sat until the candles grew roots on the empty wine bottles.” I like it. Or how about: “They sat until the candles were rooted in the empty wine bottles.”

Now, this sentence uses twelve words – it’s nine words shorter than our original: “It was a romantic occasion, and the couple were so intent on each other that hours passed and they hardly noticed.” It’s the same length as our first candle sentence: “they sat until the candles had burned right down to the wick.” But look at how much more it says. It tells us about the character because we can begin to imagine the sort of person who decorates the table with candles in empty wine bottles – we think of someone youngish, bohemian perhaps, probably cultured but not rich. It describes the passing of time in a fresh and original way that allows the reader to interpret the action. The metaphor of the roots not only alludes to the trail of candle wax but also describes how the candles become stuck in the bottle, how they become glued in by the melting wax. It has allusions to growth, to new beginnings, to life, to the idea that perhaps something big and lasting is being born. It does all that and it saves nine words.

And that, I believe, is the difference between good writing and writing that isn’t trying hard enough.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses a photography by Kate Fisher. It is covered by a Creative Commons license and you can find more of her work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fisherkate/

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