Good metaphors help us to communicate the sense of a thing that is quite complex by relating it to something more familiar. Bad metaphors can be stuffy and confusing, but a powerful metaphor can be a poetic and memorable substitute for a long winded explanation.
“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” ― Pablo Picasso, demonstrating powerful metaphors well, though unfortunately his art was not so good at washing away his machismo.
“She remembered reading somewhere that even after people died, their hair and nails kept growing. Like starlight, traveling through the universe long after the stars. Like cities,. Fizzy, effervescent, simulating the illusion of life while the planet they had plundered died around them.” – Arundhati Roy; more simile, but worthy of inclusion none the less.
Like everything with writing, creating powerful metaphors comes with lots of practice, and more hard work and crappy writing (that crappy writing we have to do in order to get to the good stuff) than most people are comfortable with. Metaphors are not spontaneous bursts of genius. They require us to know the subject intimately, and to work with it, brainstorm, and edit. So the following exercise can serve two purposes: to help you find that comparison that you are stuck on in your writing, and/or to just let you play around with big ideas and comparison and expression for the sake of it and to warm up your mind.
- First, identify the subject or message. For complex, powerful, gut wrenching or traumatic ideas, this can be harder than it looks, yet so important. Just spell things out for yourself, in 10 words or less. Keep it tight.
- Brainstorm five, or ideally 10 of the following things: a) feelings you associate with the topic b) every day associations (that doesn’t mean objects around the house, it means things – material or not – that are part of most people’s lives c) Strong verbs related to the subject
- Now play with what you have produced from step 2. Connect things, mix them around, contemplate, dream, feel it, visualise it.
- And do the hard work. Cross out the clichés, cross out the things that don’t work for the particular characters or setting or subject you are working with. And then stick to your guns. Don’t throw all the nice stuff in, pick the best thing, and then edit and improve it – i.e. don’t mix metaphors.