Go with the Flow Instead of Grasping at Straws with Your Metaphor

Once upon a time, a little over a year or so ago, I started this blog with my first post, using a metaphor.

Metaphors, writers and English teachers will tell you, are essential forms of figurative language in creative writing. I do not disagree. We use metaphors everywhere, even when we do not realize it. Dog-tired. Cheaper than dirt. Easy as pie. Game-changer. Or maybe a modern one like sock puppets or any joke that involves Chuck Norris. Metaphors help bring language to life and introduce more vivid images in our minds.

One of the most valuable aspects of metaphors are their ability to help us make connections, which can help us love a book more, understand a concept better, or help someone else do the same thing.

A couple of years ago, I was instant messaging with a student and he brought up a correction – there was a typo in one of the lesson pages. Here is what came of that conversation:

STUDENT: There is a typo on this sentence: “In general, a paragraph is a group of sentences, which share a common topic and focus on a singe main thought.” Single is typo’d. Probably not worth reporting to curriculum, but just thought I’d let you know. 😛

ME: Thanks, but maybe they wanted to have the main thought a little on the crispy side.

STUDENT: haha, in that case, they should be talking about baking your writing into a new, fresh idea 😀

ME: Let them rise in a warm place, first, though.

STUDENT: But do not add too many adjectives in a single sentence as it may leave the reader feeling a little overwhelmed by the quick rise.

ME:  Remove unnecessary articles and commas else it might flop upon removal from the oven.

STUDENT: Make sure to spread the vocabulary evenly through the written piece, otherwise, you might overdo the project!

ME: Ice with lively, active verbs.

STUDENT: And top it off with a complete, creamy closing!

ME: Yum.

STUDENT: Sounds like it’d be a tasty piece!

After those last two lines I thought I had better change the topic because, well, you can never be too careful with teacher-student communication… but I had to save the chat, because I absolutely loved the spontaneous, extended metaphor that arose.

Another student-created metaphor caught my eye recently. He compared essay writing to a burrito. Now, I’ve seen teachers use the hamburger for this kind of thing, so his idea wasn’t so far-fetched. In fact, this paragraph worked pretty well, I think:

Once one has their tortilla laid out and a good workspace cleared up, one can begin to layer the burrito.  The next step is to figure out what you want to add first so as to give your writing a little flavor but allowing it to support the later components.  One could put the beans into one’s burrito to give it that little bit of flavor.  Also, the beans are sticky enough to stick to the tortilla and hold onto both the reader’s attention and the next ingredient.

(Sidenote: Is it a teenage thing or just a human thing to want to compare things to FOOD?)

However (and based upon the title, you should have been expecting this “however” at some point, right?), can we try too hard with metaphors? I’ve most recently seen this in blog posts on writing, and I think it’s because too many bloggers who are writers and aspiring authors are working too hard at following the “rules” of blogging they’ve been given. One of those “rules” is that you must post on a regular basis. Unfortunately, if we take this rule too seriously, we end up with meaningless posts (“50 Quotes About Writing”, “Why I Blog”, “More Excuses for Why I’m Not Writing” – I bet you think I’m making those up) which then breaks another one of the “rules” of creating consumable content.

Metaphors can be powerful, but don’t always have to be the answer to “what should I write about for today’s blog post?” (Unless it’s this post, of course.) After encountering several examples that fell short for me, I considered ideas about how to keep metaphors effective.

Keep It Natural

“I was trying to come up with a scintillating and insightful way to use the Olympics as a metaphor for this writing/publishing journey. But frankly, I’m just too excited about the opening ceremonies today and can’t seem to come up with anything.”

If you have to overthink it – to wrack your brain to make it work – then inevitably it will not come across to your readers effectively, and really, if you really just want to talk about the Olympics and there’s room on your blog to do it, then just do that. If you want to talk about the bicycling accident your child recently had, then go with that instead of trying to compare the various medical steps to storytelling.

Keep It Simple

“How Book Publicity is Like a Zip Line.” Can you imagine at least one way this could be true?  I can, too. Does it need four more ways? Probably not. State the comparison to use as a springboard to expand upon the idea vs a crutch.

Keep It Focused

The burrito-essay metaphor? That paragraph was clever, but the next paragraph concentrated solely on the burrito itself and not the essay. The thread of the comparison was lost. He came back to it, but the challenge of an extended metaphor is keeping focus on the comparison from start to finish. I ran into this problem in my first post. It was a natural comparison for the helicopter seed root process and character action, and it was fairly simple, but I got distracted by the garden part of the way through the post.

Our brains are hard wired for connections, so we definitely want to take advantage of this situation. Aim for making your metaphor the game-changer, not the sock puppet.

What are some metaphors that stuck with you in your reading or learning? Do you struggle with this kind of figurative language or think it is “overrated”?

A good friend of mine and former colleague enjoyed using the song, “Eres Tú” by Mocedades as a model for comparisons in Spanish. It’s a love song, as many songs are that use metaphor, and the singer is comparing the one she loves to the guitar played in the evening, to the fresh rain in her hands, etc.Vivid imagery to attract the multiple senses and an emotional connection – this is when metaphors are at their best.

What do you think? I'd love to discuss!

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