Literary Tips: Narrator

Regardless of the tense and perspective you use in your story, you will have someone narrating. A story can’t be told if someone isn’t telling it. The person (or being, or source, or entity, etc.) telling the story is the narrator.

In first-person perspective, the narrator is a character in the story using “I” pronouns to tell the story through their eyes. This narrator can be someone in the story, most likely the protagonist, but can also be an narrator who exists outside of the story.

When we move into third-person perspective, of varying distances, the narrator can become a little ambiguous. To really understand narrator and the narrator’s role in the story, we have to remember that the narrator exists regardless of whether or not they’re a character taking part in the story’s plot. You need to consider how close they are with the story and plot.

The narrator in third-person perspective will either be a character in the story, through third-person limited perspective; or it will be a narrator watching the story, as in third-person omniscient perspective. Multiple points of view are possible when you use third-person perspective.

But you must always remember that a narrator exists in every single perspective. In third-person, they may distant or intimate; personal or objective; involved or uninvolved. The narrator still exists.

I find it helpful to imagine the narrator as a character outside the story. They have a certain voice—that storytelling voice that you, the writer, use when you describe scenery in broad strokes that a character wouldn’t particularly or intimately know—and tone to them. There are words that “fit” with the story, and other bits of vocabulary won’t. That’s part of your narrator’s voice. You don’t have to create a character profile for them, of course, but separating them a little more from the characters in the story might help you decide what the narrator knows, shows, and tells.

Another way to imagine your narrator more concretely: imagine yourself telling the story. I don’t mean create a self-insert character via a narrator; but when you write your poem, short story, book (anything, really!), you are the one narrating it. Becoming self-aware of your role as storyteller can be helpful in deciding what to reveal through a narrator vs. a character.

Here are some questions to ask about your narrator (when your narrator is not the protagonist):

Is my narrator invested in the story?

A character like Lemony Snicket in A Series of Unfortunate Events is both a narrator and a character. Snicket is invested in the story, but has no part in the plot. s such, he has biases and can comment on the story through his own lens of personality, experience, and personal investment in the Baudelaires’ story.

Does my narrator affect the plot?

A narrator like Death in The Book Thief is one of those narrators that I personally marvel at. Death affects the plot because that’s what death does–the protagonist’s sibling dying is the most obvious example of Death affecting the plot. But that’s about as far as Death can reach into the plot of The Book Thief. There are different degrees of influence that a narrator can have on the plot, so consider what your narrator can, cannot, does, and does not do.

How personal or objective is my narrator?

With this question, I mean what kinds of stakes and feeling does the narrator have for the protagonist. Do they care at all? Are they merely commenting on events? The less personal your narrator is, the less likely they’ll feel as if they’re a character in the story. If you have a very objective narrator, you may not even consider your narrator to be a character at all. The narrator may just be you, telling the story, and you occasionally hone in on character’s experiences and points of view.

How distanced or intimate is my narrator?

Similar to the above question, consider the distance and intimacy that your narrator has with the plot and characters. In first-person perspective, you are in a more intimate space with the “I” narrator: the story directly involves the character. Swinging toward third-person perspective can create more distance, depending on how you use it. A third-person omniscient perspective has the most distance from the plot. They are an all-seeing storyteller, relaying a story about other people. When your narrator is part of the story in some way, there will be levels of intimacy and distance from the events happening in the plot, since they are involved.

Does my narrator step back when my characters tell the story?

This question is specifically directed at anyone writing a third-person limited story, or a story with multiple points of view. Your characters narrate if they say what they observe, show their thoughts, and experience what comes to their senses of sight, smell, sound, etc. Your narrator might not show up until you pull back from your characters to give a sweeping view of the landscape or explain some worldbuilding.


In The Pilgrimage, I use third-person limited perspective. The story is told through my characters’ eyes—the protagonist, his sister, the two companions they meet, and the antagonist. It seems like a lot of characters already… but I also have a narrator. When I wrote the story, and while I edit it now, I remember that I am the narrator when one of my characters isn’t. I could imagine my narrator as another character outside the story, but because I have an intimate perspective through five characters (*internally screaming*), adding another theoretical character will be too much. So I just remind myself that I’m also involved. I am telling the story when my characters aren’t telling me about their experiences.

A follow-up to this topic is a quick focus on a focalising character! They’re similar to narrators, but not the same thing. When you write in multiple points of view, or have a narrator like Nick in The Great Gatsby, you will also run into a focaliser in the story. My novel uses focaliser characters, but this is content for another post!

Literary Tips: Description

Description in writing means you’re trying to show your readers how something is in a physical, tangible, or visceral way. While I write, I flip between describing too much and not describing enough. Some scenes will be filled with too much literary painting of a location, and others leave me wondering where on earth my characters talk, stand, and exist. I have a few tips for how I try to describe, since I know my weaknesses: I go overboard or I don’t go far enough at all. These tips are designed for fellow writers who can’t find a balance between the two!

As always, remember the voice and style you’re writing in. Some of these tips won’t be recommended depending on your style. If you’re writing, say, a clinical sci-fi story, then toning down on metaphor and simile will be more aligned to your story’s voice.

Anyway, here are my tips for writing description if you struggle to find a balance!

General

Consider senses (sight, sound, smell, feel, taste, size/scale/magnitude, balance, time)

Sensory details make a scene more visceral. The classic five senses are great for putting characters and the setting in reality. However, there are more senses to consider! I personally like to use senses in time and scale for my setting. I’ll describe how big things are in relation to each other, like the character, or how time feels when it’s passing or not passing. Using a sense of warmth and chill is one of my tactics for describing characters—though I tread carefully with that, since it may turn cliche very quickly.

Characters

Pick one physical trait as a first impression for readers and other characters.

One stand-out feature often packs a bigger punch than multiple features to describe a character’s appearance. If I focus on a detail while giving a broad picture image of a character, while I’m reading, I can somehow imagine the character more easily. Think of a stand-out feature of someone you know well or care about. It doesn’t necessarily define their image, but it’s memorable. You want to write memorable characters.

Try to “package” their appearance, instead of cataloguing all of their features.

Find descriptors that do multiple things at once instead of listing out an excessive amount of them. Lists are great, but too many descriptions at once will overwhelm a reader. This goes along with picking one stand-out trait. When you package a character using fewer words, you give the reader broad strokes and impressions of the character. A woman with a dark complexion on a slim build who has green eyes framed by thick, bushy eyebrows that nearly touched her temples—this kind of description packages a character’s appearance better than saying “She had dark brown skin, black hair, with slim limbs and a tall frame, while her emerald eyes sat under thick, bushy eyebrows.” This latter description is more of a catalogue. They both say the same thing (dark hair and skin, slim figure, green eyes, thick eyebrows), but proportionally, they focus on different aspects. I will emphasise one thing here, though: be aware of stereotypes, particularly bigoted ones. A flamboyant gay man is a stereotype. A sassy black woman is a stereotype. Be aware of them, particularly if you’re writing characters with identities and ethnicities different than yours.

Show one physical quirk that expresses one emotion.

This tip is very specific. I like to pick one quirk, habit, or behaviour that shows a character’s emotion. This is where people watching helps me make a mental database of quirks! Some people twirl their hair when they’re thinking. When I’m incredibly focused, I nibble on my dead cuticles. For the same emotion, my boyfriend chews at his fingernails. When I’m anxious, I rub my thumb against the side of one of my fingers, or I click my fingernails together (if they’re long). There are cliche body language gestures for certain emotions (such as chewing on your nails), but if you watch people mindfully, you’ll notice that they have unique gestures. It helps to people watch the same person often, or even yourself, to come up with these quirks.

Setting

Avoid “white room syndrome” by describing the setting near the beginning of a new scene/chapter.

“White room syndrome” is when your characters exist in a state of nothingness while they talk or act. They may be moving around or interacting with each other, but they lack an environment. I always picture a floor-less, wall-less room with the characters standing on nothing. Like the scene in The Matrix before Neo and Trinity gear up at the climax. Or, for more examples, the “White Void Room” shown often in film and television. I avoid this by writing a bit of setting description near the beginning of the scene, to set the stage.

Use your POV character to describe the location.

What would they notice? What interests them? What stands out or doesn’t stand out to them? Just like you and your friends, you’ll notice different details when looking at or experiencing something.

Worldbuilding

Aim for nuances and mood.

This tip is similar to the character packaging one. Instead of cataloguing all the surroundings and environment, try to create an atmospheric mood with a few details. A rainy day on a forested hill has a mood. A mix of conifer and broadleaf trees, illuminated by beams of sun above the character… that also has a mood. What doesn’t have a mood? “I walked into the forest, noting the pine and broadleaf trees swaying, and climbed the hill, travelling deeper.” There’s no quality of light, weather, or environment to overlay the entire image.

Avoid dumping information on the reader in order to show as much as possible of your world.

This tip goes for characters as well, but I emphasise it for setting. Since I write fantasy, it’s also my primary reading genre. Fantasy writers want to convey their created or altered world in as much detail as possible to their readers. Perhaps it’s an insecurity of ours, and we don’t think the place is “real” enough and we overdo the description. Or perhaps the world is our primary interest in the story and we’re just too dang excited about it to stop describing it. Regardless, too much at once will disconnect the reader from the story. We learn about the world naturally by learning slowly as we grow up, as we visit new places, as we research different countries. Small details add up over time and readers can more easily remember bite-size chunks to form the world in their mind as they read.


Hopefully you can take away something useful from this post! What are some of your weaknesses when it comes to description? What about your strengths?

Self-Editing Tips: Line Edits

Often, people are confused between line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Line editing is the most “creative” of the three: it deals with how the craft carries the story.

Line edits are typically what I myself get caught up in while writing, when my inner editor is more in control than the writer. I stress over word choice, phrasing, and always ask, “Is this the right way to write this?”

Copy editing and proofreading are separate from line editing, and they’re vastly more technical than line edits.

So how to do line edits?

First, you must read through your story. You should already have done this in your developmental edits—which come before any line edits—but reading through after the revisions is key for line editing. How you read the story is up to you: you can do a cold read-through, use digital formats, print off your text in order to attack with a red pen, make notes on paper or voice recording…

However you read through your post-substantive-edits story, you absolutely need to read through it. Either during or after your read-through, remember the tips below.

Remember your audience.

Demographics are important to your book. Age ranges have varying levels of diction. Picture books have a language level to them, as do adult fiction. While you read through your story, remember who you’re writing for. The level of propriety is up to you and your own factors, but line edits are the time to consider how your target reader will read your writing.

Consider your voice (but don’t force one).

When you read through your story, notice the lines that jump out to you—in a good way. These tend to be emblematic of your voice. When they jump out at you, it’s yourself waving back. You feel a connection to them. You can analyse however you like, but as long as you can recognise a sentence that feels like “you” and your writing, you’re on your way to developing your own writing voice. Don’t try to create a voice for yourself based on your preferences or an ideal style. We all have our own patterns in language and those fall into our writing and speaking.

Ask yourself, “What is this phrase, paragraph, or scene trying to convey?”

Your writing always has a purpose. It doesn’t have to be a grandiose or epic purpose of high stakes and emotion. While you do line edits, be aware of sentences that feel empty, rather than adding to the scene. These sentences are usually repetitive of earlier writing, or purely filler in order to get more words in.

Aim for specifics over flourishes.

The difference between creative phrasing and purple prose is one of specificity. When a writer can use a specific word in place of a lengthy, flowery phrase, they are able to focus on smaller, concrete details. Use specific words and you don’t have to overcompensate with more words than necessary. Filler words (like conjunctions, prepositions, and adverbs) all add bulk instead of meaning. The passive voice is one way to add more words. Look for places in your writing where you over explain or over describe. Can you get more specific with your words?

Use minimal passive voice and “to be” verbs.

As mentioned before, filler words add bulk that muddle the writing. Passive voice, the elusive beast, thrives on them. Passive voice has a slow rhythm whereas active voice has a quick one. It’s up to you when you use active or passive, but remember how they flow. Here’s an example:

Active: Passive voice syntax needs more filler words.
Passive: The syntax of passive voice is filled with more words.

Your writing will need “to be” verbs (is/was, are/were) at times, but often, they are written in the passive voice, and are replaced when a sentence is rephrased. Let’s try that again: They show passive voice, and strong verbs replace them when writing is rephrased. A professor of mine described “to be” as an “equal sign” in the sentence. “X = Y” is the same as “X is Y.” See if you can change the verb or rephrase the sentence to remove “to be” for a more multifaceted sentence, and a verb that does more duty than an equal sign.

Read aloud.

You don’t need to do a dramatic reading. Even mumbling to yourself while you read will help you catch the flow of your words. We learn to speak before we learn how to write, and how we hear influences the way we read.

Reach out for opinions of other readers, writers, and editors!

This last tip doesn’t mean it should be after you’ve done everything else. Take to Twitter or a trusted friend and ask them about phrasing. Often, you’ll receive feedback you’d never have considered. For instance, due to my background in linguistics, I love giving feedback for my preferences in syntax, which is something not ever writer is in-tune with.

Your line edits look at word choice, sentence structure, paragraph structure, tone, and how you craft your writing. Ultimately, you’re editing in order to say something the best possible way.

Do you have any tips or tricks for how you do line edits? Share them below!

How to Use Dreams for Writing

I have vivid, lucid, and strange dreams frequently. They’re how I know I’m sleeping normally, actually. If I don’t dream, then I’m not sleeping well! Because I have them so often and remember them well, I’m able to include them in my stories and story ideas. I’ve spent a while honing my skills at adapting (that’s a key word) my dreams to use in writing.

Here are a few tips to do what I do!

Retell and recall dreams the way you remember them

Don’t fret about how accurately you remember your dreams. Not everyone remembers them or even remembers them well. If you wake up from a dream and you have ideas, whether or not they’re from your dreams, write down the ideas! You’re not trying to pscyhoanalyse your dreams. You’re trying to get inspiration from them. Priorities whatever jumps out at you, not the fuzzy details.

Record dreams ASAP!

Don’t wait to record your dreams. It may be handy to keep a notepad next to your bed so you can quickly jot down your dreams. You could also dictate them to an app or tape recorder (if people still use those, omg). For me, I often tell my boyfriend about my dream, since he’s the first person I see in the mornings. Re-telling the dream turns it into a more natural story, too. Usually, I remember information better if I speak as well as write it, so if I don’t write down my dreams, I can at least remember bits of them after saying them out loud.

Focus on one aspect for your story

Don’t try to use everything from your dreams. They’re are haphazard as hell, so using all the elements and scenes would result in a hot, surreal mess. Instead, focus on one part. Maybe there was an interesting character, setting, or conflict. My most recent story-fodder-dream was weird and included a lot of Star Wars, but a set of characters and their quest in it have provided me with inspiration for a fantasy story. One of my nightmares filled me with a specific feeling of terror: a mix of claustrophobia, apathy, and slime. I used it for a scene in The Pilgrimage. The dreams were larger than what I used for my writing inspiration

Adapt your dreams to a story

Don’t use the “raw” dreams as stories. You need to edit and develop them in order to make sense in a story, just like any other idea you have. We read books because they have a structure to them, and dreams very, very rarely have structure. Your dreams and ideas from it will need to be molded to fit into a structure. The characters from my most recent dream have been adapted. I can’t exactly have Darth Maul be one of my characters, but that’s who he was in the dream. I occasionally write up dreams I have, and they’re edited from what I actually dreamt about. You must change your dream in order to use it in fiction.

Bonus: practise lucid dreaming

Don’t worry if you can’t remember dreams well. You can use whatever small or incomplete aspects you remember! But, if you’re looking to improve your dream recollection, you can try practising lucid dreaming. There are many tutorials and resources online to do it. Personally, I’ve never found success in lucid dreaming, but it might help you be more aware of your dreams while you’re dreaming them. It’s worth a shot, after all!

Do you use your dreams to inspire your stories? Let me know the weirdest dream you’ve had!

Literary Tips: Weaving Plot, Character, and Setting

If you’re like me and you’ve written your novel, you know who your characters are, what the conflict is, and where everything takes place. But that’s probably because you’ve spent so much time thinking about them. You know your protagonist’s quirks. You know the name of the taxi driver in chapter 7. You know tons of little details about your world and its weather. You’re fathoms deep in your story, and we often scale back on the details we write while drafting to avoid over-exposition.

But have you, also like me, overlooked why you need to weave the characters, plot, and setting together?

Let’s take a step out of stories and look at the real world. We live in places and have experiences that impact who we are. If you grew up where I did, you’d know a bit of French and read it on all your product packaging. If you grew up with my life, you’d have experiences that changed you and your behaviour.

In real life, and as it should be in stories, people can’t be separated from their surroundings and their struggles.

Whether or not your story revolves around character or conflict, the three main aspects of your story (except theme, but that’s a post for another day) are character, setting, and plot. Your story will improve if you can weave them together.

Weaving these three together means thinking about how they interact with one another. There is a push and a pull between them all. They need to work harmoniously. Doing so will create a strong net that will catch your story. You’ll have fewer plot holes if you can justify why problems happen to your character in the setting, and how all three play with each other.

Here are some questions to help you figure out if you’re weaving the plot, character, and setting. These questions are intended to be asked for a scene or chapter, but are also incredibly useful with the broad-spectrum view of your story.

  • How does your character act in the setting?
  • How does setting impact your character?
  • Why does the conflict take place in this setting?
  • Why does your character stay in or leave the setting?
  • What will the plot and conflict change about your character?
  • What can your character do to influence the conflict and plot?

If you can’t remember the specific questions or want a simpler way to remember them, there are three question words to ask about your character/conflict/setting pairings: how, what, and why. How do the two aspects work together? What do they do to each other? Why are they together?

Weaving together the three main aspects of your writing will make your writing feel more connected. You won’t feel like your characters are placed in a random location and have things happening to them. When you weave the people in with the places and plot, you justify what happens to whom, wherever they are.

For your convenience, I’ve also made a simplified triangular relationship chart for this concept!

Self-Editing Tips: Developmental Edits

A book, latte, and pen on a wooden table with text overlay reading Self-Editing Tips: Developmental Edits

So, I recently finished a rewrite of THE PILGRIMAGE. This is the draft I’ll be revising in a few weeks, and I figured I’d share some self-editing tips, both for my own reference and for yours! In case you didn’t know, I edit stories. I’ve learned a lot through editing other people’s stories, as well as tons of workshopping in my university program.

When you first start revising a book, you must start with developmental edits.

Developmental edits are concerned with the skeletal issues with your story: plot, character, and structure. (Theme is also included, but that can be tweaked through every stage of edits.)

Here are some of my tips for doing your own developmental edits!

Do a cold read-through and make notes.

Before you even start revising the story, read through it and make notes on plot, character, and structure. Don’t do any edits yet—instead, see where you have plot holes, where the conflict lessens, and how much you’ve characterised your cast.

Pin down your story as either plot-driven or character-driven.

Knowing the priorities for your story will help immensely. A plot or action-based story will necessitate different focuses than one based on the characters. To figure out which one your story is, ask yourself the question, “What is my protagonist’s goal?” If it’s something personal, your story is character-driven. If it’s something external, your story is plot/action-driven. For example, if the goal is “Successfully navigate high school,” then it’s personal: it deals with just the protagonist. But if the goal is, “Successfully save high school from demons,” your story relies on action. Character and action will both be important, but at this stage, you need to figure out which one will help you plot out the conflict.

Consider beta readers or critique partners.

Feedback from outside sources is invaluable for revising your story. You know the story in a way that’s completely different to your peers: there’s more in your head than on the page. I highly recommend taking on a few beta readers and critique partners to help give you opinions on character, plot, worldbuilding, stakes, conflict, etc. Sensitivity readers are also recommended. They look for specific problematic content that you can’t experience in your identity.

Resist the line edits!

Developmental edits are for the big picture. Who cares about your typos or sentence structure right now? It’s hard to avoid tweaking details in order to feel like you’re making progress to the finished draft. However, you must consider the broad strokes of your story before you look at the finer, smaller elements.

Breathe.

You can get through this. Your story was drafted over a period of time where you were inevitably growing. You need to remember that you changed as you wrote the story, and you’re working to get it to the best quality you can in the present.

Look into editing resources.

Other writers have written about their processes, and it’s always helpful to find more information on how to do it!

KM Weiland has a wonderful 15-step self-editing process she uses for her fiction.

“How to Self Edit Your Novel” from Fantasy Scroll has suggestions for your self-editing (and has a differing point of view to my list, with their first suggestion being typo fixing!), and also includes more resources and references.

Now Novel has a handy infographic for self-editing.

The book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers has been highly recommended to me. It’s on my TBR!

And finally…
Contact your editor.

If you have hired an editor to help with your project—which I also recommend—keep in touch with them while you work on your edits. I strongly recommend hiring an editor. Beta readers and critique partners are helpful, but they often look at your story through a reader’s point of view. While this is helpful, experienced editors have a more intimate knowledge of craft and the skills to impart that knowledge to you.

I wish you the best of luck in self-editing and making it through developmental edits! It can feel like your story is a pile of trash and has lots of problems, but you can fix them and make your story the greatest it can be. (I’ll have to remind myself of this when I get to my own novel in a few weeks… *gulp*)

Literary Tips: Symbolism

A symbol is a word or phrase that signifies an object or event which in turn signifies something or suggests a range of reference beyond itself. Symbolism is the collection of all these symbols or other symbolic elements.

More simply, a symbol is something small that reflects on something bigger than itself.

Symbols are a key part of everyday life, in a broad sense. Marketing firms use symbols inherent to the culture to pitch products. Symbols appear as icons on road signs, public transit, your phone. The letter “A” can symbolise so much: the best of a list, the best effort, the beginning. Canadian symbolism would likely use a goose to symbolise aggression; a beaver for hard work; forests for industry. They can be single words or images or animals, or they can be phrases—the Stars and Stripes is a symbol. When you get down to specific cities, more symbols can arise. It’s impossible to escape symbolism.

The symbols and symbolism I most enjoy, from a reader and writer’s point of view, are called “personal” or “private” symbols. These are built throughout a poem, a short story, or a book. Personal/private symbols are made by building associations to a symbol by giving it meaningful attributes that add to the symbol’s reference. Like taking an ant, putting a tie on it, and looking at it through a magnifying glass. The ant is the symbol, the attributes are the tie, and the symbol’s reference is the view through the magnifying glass. An ant could symbolise hard work, but adding the hat adds another attribute—let’s say business and commerce.

A personal symbol takes a symbol, but adds or changes something about it to make the symbol reflect on something different from the norm.

Let’s take the example of the lion. It symbolises pride and courage. So what other associations can be made to the symbol? It is an endangered species, faces habitat destruction, and is a victim of poaching. How can those meaningful attributes add to the symbol’s reference—how can it add to pride and courage? Destroyed pride. A threatened ego. The lack of courage and bravery.

In one of the books I recently read, the protagonist is directly associated with juniper—a type of tree—instead of a flower, like her mother is. Later in the book, in a separate instance, the love interest scrambles through a patch of juniper. Boom. Symbolism. The common association of flora (plants and flowers) to women implies they are delicate, beautiful, and to be looked at; but contradicting the flora with further description (the juniper) changes the symbol. The author adds meaningful attributes that alter the reference.

The lines between simile, metaphor, extended metaphor, and symbolism tend to get blurred. But when it comes to symbolism, it looks at something small that generally relates to a bigger picture, idea, event, or concept. The lion symbolises an abstract emotion or quality. The juniper symbolises a character. A letter (“A”) symbolises status and starts.

A recurring theme or topic in your writing can be tapped into more when you use a symbol to refer to it. If you can find something concrete and smaller than the abstract, use it as a symbol throughout the book or poem! It can help link together all of your writing and reinforce the thematic elements.

Literary Tips Symbolism

Literary Tips: Metaphor

Metaphor: a word or expression that, without comparing, denotes one kind of thing is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing.

Examples:
He ran with cheetah speed.
Sunlight crept into the room.

Metaphors are generally made of two parts: the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is what is being described. In the examples above, the tenors are “speed,” and “sunlight.” The vehicle carries the additional property. Vehicles can be nouns ( “He ran with cheetah speed”) or verbs ( “Sunlight crept into the room”) or any other part of speech if you can get clever enough. They can also be phrases instead of single words.

So that’s the technical part that I needed to know in order to analyse literature.

But what about what I need to know to write literature?

My thoughts on writing with metaphors: only use them when you have multiple things to say. Your metaphors should say more by association and contrast than with the words already there. Each of the vehicles for our example metaphors has additional association. Am I using this metaphor only to be A Literary Person Who Writes, or am I introducing something else?

Since I brought in the technicality, ask yourself: how much further can I drive the vehicle? Not only does this question remind me to be aware of additional meaning, it helps me remember which part of the metaphor does what. It feels nice to be able to look at your metaphor and have a word. #LitJargon—it’s a magical thingamajig to make the words stop being thingamajigs.

Let’s look at the examples I use~

“He ran with cheetah speed.”

A cheetah is a predatory cat, one of the fastest land animals in the world, and is animal rather than human. What does this say about the runner’s speed? Is he incredibly fast? Does he run as if he isn’t human? How does this affect the description—are we in awe of his speed, or a little bit terrified? Does it seem unnatural because it’s inhuman—or does it seem incredible, like a superpower?

Personally, I would consider this metaphor to be weak. The attributes shared between “cheetah” and “speed” lack a contrast. Cheetahs are fast. This is fact. The metaphor borders on cliche because the comparison and shared attributes are obvious.

“Sunlight crept into the room.”

Creeping, crawling, slithering—these verbs are reminiscent of, again, animal-like tendencies. There is hesitancy or even simple slowness associated with creeping. Is there caution? Is there fear? What does this say about the sun? What does this say about the narrator or focalising character?

And this is a metaphor I would consider technically better. Sunlight? An inanimate feature? If anything, it’s part of setting and not even an object. How can light-waves creep? There is a higher contrast between the vehicle and the tenor. The downside to this metaphor is that it’s almost a cliche. My love is a red, red rose. You are the light of my life. What would happen if “crept” were replaced with, oh, I dunno… Galumphed. Scampered. Breezed. Coughed. Waved.

Contrast. Contrast is good.

Depending on the voice and tone of your story (be it a novel, a novella, a short story, or even poetry), your metaphors can reflect on the narrator or character. If you have a third-person limited narrator with one character as the focaliser of your story, you can show the character’s thoughts, feelings, fears, and other reactions by way of metaphors. Here is a longer passage which includes our sunlight metaphor:

“Winona winced when her eyes peeled open. The sunlight crept into the room, slinking toward her face and the sable comfort under her head. A thunderous birdsong seeped through the windows and invaded Winona’s ears. The bed croaked as she rolled over and covered her head with the sheets.”

This is, I’ll admit, a bit overboard. Too many metaphors and similes and other literary devices can make your writing flowery (or “purple prose” as some say). This isn’t a bad thing, of course! Sometimes you need those hyperbolically literary passages, in first drafts or even in final drafts.

So what does this passage say about Winona?

A lot. And she didn’t do anything except open her eyes and roll over. But it is excruciatingly clear that this awakening is an unpleasant one.

Often when writers and other literary figures give advice about writing, they mention using strong verbs. Whether that means replacing, “Eduardo walked quickly down the hall” with “Eduardo sped down the hall,” or “Eduardo snaked down the hall,” you’re adding more information to your sentence. Anyone can walk. But what happens if that person instead starts snaking?

Metaphors give you a quick way to punch your readers’ brains with more information!

Summary (or, TL;DR)

– tenor + vehicle = metaphor
– tenor = “what is the thing?”
– vehicle = “what makes this a metaphor?”
– tenor + vehicle + contrast = good metaphor

A quick lesson on metaphors, what they are, and how they can strengthen your writing!