Some people believe angels have a metaphorical language; that they speak through words and phrases rife with multiple concepts and revelations. We humble humans can share in these powerful tools. Used in poetry, fiction, or any type of non-fiction writing, metaphor and simile can bring your words deeper meaning and lift your prose beyond the ordinary. So what is a metaphor anyway? I like Wikipedia’s explanation best: Metaphor is the concept of understanding one thing in terms of another. Angels speaking.
However, a badly written metaphor can be painful. Be sure the metaphor or simile is appropriate to the voice, tone, and subject matter of your writing. In other words, unless writing a dark comedy, don’t use bright, funny images of clowns and popping champagne while writing about a funeral. On the other side, stay away from too many melodramatic death and despair images. And beware! An overused metaphor takes your writing into cliché. So use the metaphor tool wisely.
Pay attention to excellent metaphors and similes in the writing of others, and notice what works. Don’t worry if metaphor doesn’t flow out of your own pen naturally, you can strengthen your skill. Like everything else in writing, practice until this kind of writing becomes more natural to you.
Here are some exercises to help you think beyond the surface meaning of words and phrases.
1. Start with an object or feeling in your writing. Brainstorm a list of its properties or associations. For instance, let’s take anger. Hot, cold, quiet, sneaky, desperate. Next, list at least ten images that go with each word. Hot: the gust of a desert wind. Cold: the blue of an ice storm. Quiet: the echo of blood throbbing in your ears. Sneaky: the slink of a starving coyote. Desperate: the unanswered begging of the homeless.
2. Pick an object. Describe it in terms of human attributes. Write the obvious, but then push it beyond. Instead of being supportive, is a chair lazy? Does it seduce passersby to sit? Does it feed on wasted time, becoming gluttonous and puffed-up? Is a bed a place to relax, inviting? Or is it hard? Lonely? A prison? Does a lamp illuminate the room, or is it a flickering trickster tossing strange shadows and images around? Does it uncover the ugliness of the room? Of the faces and souls of the people who sit under it?
3. Pick a feeling and do the same, describe it with human attributes. Obvious then go beyond.
Keep a section in your writing journal where you do nothing but practice metaphor. Choose an object or feeling, and write metaphors—good, bad and brilliant—until you run out. Not a poet? So what? Write poems anyway. You don’t have to show anything to anyone. Just a little practice, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly metaphor and simile will become second nature to you.