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Writing Quote: Metaphors

July 18, 2010

Today’s writing quote comes from an author whose work I’m rather fond of (I’ve read several of his books, and they are very intelligent and articulate books).

Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space. 

~Orson Scott Card

Metaphors are one of those tools of style that writers have at their disposal, but few writers master their use.  In the wrong hands, a metaphor becomes a blunt instrument, good only for pounding the nails of common things, or worse, it becomes a cliché.  But in more practiced hands, they become as Lyra’s Alethiometer, revealing the truth of things in unexpected ways.

The first challenge of metaphor is to use it only when called for.  Not every descriptive element benefits from the use of metaphor to describe it.  Overuse of metaphor can weaken each use. 

The second, and greater challenge of metaphor, is to find meaningful connections between unlike things that, when placed in juxtaposition, will reveal something new to the reader.  Thus, for instance, it’s not generally meaningful or useful to use metaphor to describe a property of an object that is self-evident.  We wouldn’t, for instance, write that “the sun gleamed in the sky like a thousand candles” – this poor metaphor is calling out the character of “brightness” of the sun, but that’s a self-evident and defining characteristic, and gives the reader no new information. 

Instead, a metaphor like “the sun glared down like my third-grade math teacher” tells us something meaningful (although what meaning that might be is incomplete without knowing a little more about the third-grade math teacher, but the verb “glare” suggests what that teacher might have been like), and suggests something of the state-of-mind of the character making this observation.

Those are just a couple of my thoughts on using metaphor.  I’m no master, by far, but keeping these techniques in mind, I’m sure I’ll find myself improving over time.

Happy Writing.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2010 1:04 pm

    You know, this would make a fine Author Aerobics exercise…

    • July 18, 2010 5:25 pm

      …So… sometimes the spam filter is weird, and catches things that don’t look remotely like spam. That’s only happened maybe once or twice ever. I’m sorry it caught your comment! 😦

      • July 20, 2010 8:56 am

        Yes! An Author Aerobics metaphor challenge!

        SW: I believe that’s called a “False positive.”

      • July 20, 2010 8:59 am

        Yeah, that’s the correct term, I believe. But it’s really weird because it doesn’t look anything like real spam. It’s from someone who’s had approved comments. There are no links. There’s nothing to tip it off. It’s just weird.

  2. July 18, 2010 3:31 pm

    You know this would make a great Author Aerobics exercise…

    • July 18, 2010 5:25 pm

      Indeed. Hmm….

      And a tough one!

      • July 18, 2010 5:33 pm

        Oh yeah please feel free to delete the double posting! I thought maybe I didn’t submit it properly so I typed it in again. Sorry about that!

      • July 18, 2010 8:01 pm

        No… it’s cool. You just got caught in the web of insanity.

        I think I’ll leave the double-post, for now, as a humorous reminder of what happens when you spam me! 😉

  3. July 19, 2010 11:12 pm

    Speculative fiction can smear the line between metaphor and reality. Therefore, you have to be careful to ground your world that the metaphor is taken as metaphor. I heard of one writer eschewing it entirely; but I’ve watched for it while reading more and have decided it depends on the speculative fiction author whether they use it or not. Therefore, it seems you can leave your darling metaphors in as long as they pull their weight.

    • July 20, 2010 8:37 am

      Interesting point. I’ve seen, in speculative fiction, examples of metaphors that liken something in the story to some non-real thing that is solely a part of the speculative fiction setting. I think that weakens the potential impact of the metaphor, and does nothing, really, to help with the worldbuilding side of the speculative fiction. I agree that metaphors have to be grounded in things that the readers can actually relate to in order for the metaphor to have real meaning.

      • July 20, 2010 11:49 pm

        However, you make a good point. When you used the example “the sun glared down like my third-grade math teacher”, it told me less about the sun, but more about your third-grade math teacher. Perhaps an inverse metaphore 😉 Could be useful to help see world if done carefully.

      • July 21, 2010 8:41 am

        That’s part of the idea behind metaphor: to reveal something to the reader in an engaging way. I’d say that particular metaphor also tells me something about the character making the observation: why does he or she remember the glare of his/her third grade teacher in such a way?

        Giving those kinds of glimpses is why we need to be careful and thoughtful about how we write our metaphors.

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