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.

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!


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