Having a few metaphors up your sleeve is a short cut to making your writing warmer and more memorable.
A great metaphor can emphasise a point far more quickly and deeply than three paragraphs of exposition. But how do you write a good one, and how do you use them to best effect in your writing?
It’s a question that’s an odd one for me to answer. I find writing metaphors as easy as falling off a log. When I think of having metaphors up my sleeve it’s a magician’s sleeve that I picture, where the coloured handkerchiefs keep coming and coming. A lot of my internal dialogue is in metaphors – I am constantly comparing things to other things in my head – experiences, feelings, people – making connections that tell stories is how I make sense of the world.
For me, thinking in metaphors is a way of seeing and decoding that’s as natural as breathing. But I know it’s not like that for everybody.
Struck down by metaphorphobia? You’re not alone
If you’re struggling writing metaphors you’re in good company.
Sonja admitted today that she’s a bit scared of writing metaphors. Scared of not being able to think of good ones. Scared that any metaphors she does come up with will be as dull as ditchwater. And scared, I think, that metaphor writing itself belongs in the creative part of the writing spectrum, and she doesn’t see herself there.
I thought she saw it as the part inhabited by proper poets and wafty scarf wearing women who go on retreats and write blank verse about the moon, and so didn’t want to set up camp there. But I was wrong.
She would love to wear the wafty scarf of creativity but has never seen herself that way. Labelled the ‘clever one’, creativity was never her thing. And the labelling is so entrenched that she feels like she’ll get it wrong if she tries, and will look ridiculous.
She won’t get it wrong, but I understand her inhibitions. It’s exactly the same way I feel about sport.
So here is my attempt to demystify metaphor writing for you.
1. Don’t be scared
The reason you want to get more metaphors into your writing is because it will make your writing easier to understand and help you make a connection with your reader. You’re doing it for a good reason, and your readers will thank you for it.
Who doesn’t love stumbling across a metaphor that brings whatever you’re reading alive; tugs at your heart or stirs up memories or tickles your senses? You’re doing it for good reasons, because you care about your reader and you want them to have the best experience possible.
So if you’re scared because it feels like showing off, don’t be. You’re doing it because it will make your reader’s journey more rewarding. If you’re scared because you think you can’t do it – you don’t know how – then read on.
2. Practise with objects
Exercise your metaphor writing muscles.
Start with something ordinary, say, an orange. Put it on the desk in front of you. Put a timer on for ten minutes. Write down everything that orange could be – a globe, a sun, an alien egg, the kneecap of the women in the hot tub who’s just back from Lanzarote.
Even if you feel a bit self conscious at first keep going – the more outlandish the better. If you can make yourself laugh while you’re doing it you’re on to something. Don’t worry if you can’t, but do try to enjoy it. We’re at our most creative when we’re relaxed and having fun.
3. Practise with experiences
Metaphors that describe how something makes you feel are useful when it comes to writing helpful blogs. They’re useful for creating valuable content – you can demonstrate empathy quickly and simply with metaphors and show people the happy results of following your advice with metaphors.
So instead of saying:
‘Speaking on stage makes many people nervous, but this workshop will help you become a sought after public speaker.’
With metaphors and similes (comparisons that use ‘like’ or ‘as’) you could say:
‘If the idea of standing on stage is more terrifying than your first day at school, fear not. This workshop will help you make the experience as easy and enjoyable as a night in the pub with your best friends.’
So practise making these connections, and write them down. When you’re feeling nervous/excited/confused about something think about when else you felt like that. Map connections between experiences, and jot them down. You could start to build your own metaphor reference library!
4. Steal like a magpie
Steal ideas and images from novels, poetry, films. Change the context of a great image and in the words of Louis Walsh, you can make it your own.
We wove Chekov’s ‘show me moonlight glinting on broken glass’ into our book. Now Chekov was certainly not thinking of content marketing case studies when he wrote the words, but it’s a beautiful and evocative metaphor for ‘show not tell.’
I reckon it’s perfectly fine to do a little judicious sprinkling of other people’s lines into your own writing. Go ahead, you have my permission.
Practise makes perfect. See the world with new eyes
Practise metaphor writing as you do whatever you’re doing.
- That man at the bus stop looks like Captain Kirk when he’s just been given bad news.
- The sky is the colour of bluebells at dusk.
- This tea is the colour of the tights I wore to church in the early 1980s.
Write them down if you like, or just enjoy them privately. The more you practise the easier it will be to nail a great metaphor next time you need one. Creativity is a muscle – use it and it gets stronger.
And that’s it. If it all seems a bit daft and contrived, work through it. Give yourself permission to be silly. Experimenting with language and ideas has a serious purpose, but don’t take it too seriously while you’re doing it.
Keep your eye on the prize – vivid, sparkling writing that connects with your reader – and enjoy the ride.
* Beautiful image by Kristina Hughes, Sonja’s very creative sister! Thanks T.