How to Write Powerful Metaphors

Sophie Playle

Metaphors are powerful weapons in your writing arsenal. (See what I did there? That was a metaphor.)

A thoughtfully written metaphor used in just the right place will help you create vivid, original prose – the kind that makes readers sigh in blissful appreciation.

I love these two quotes about metaphors:

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

Orson Scott Card

A metaphor is a kind o’ lie to help people understand what’s true.

Terry Pratchett

Truth is at the heart of a good metaphor. Metaphors shouldn’t make your writing unnecessarily obtuse. Instead, metaphors should make complex or unfamiliar concepts easier to understand by connecting them to something more familiar. In this way, your writing will be more concise because you don’t have to spend time explaining something.

Metaphors imply comparisons between two different things that have something important in common, though the comparison is figurative rather than literal.

Examples of great metaphors in fiction:

Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it’s there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make?

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

She herself is a haunted house. She does not possess herself; her ancestors sometimes come and peer out of the windows of her eyes and that is very frightening.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, Angela Carter

Why you should use metaphors in your writing

Metaphors create a shortcut to understanding

The qualities of the metaphor can be quickly and easily applied to the thing the metaphor is describing, without the need for those qualities to be explicitly stated. This makes your writing delightfully succinct and concentrates meaning. The metaphor ‘love is a thorny rose’ is not difficult to understand: it suggests that love it beautiful but has the hidden potential for pain.

Metaphors can surprise the brain, which in turn leads to delight

The key to keeping your reader interested is by continuously smashing apart expectation. Usually, we think of originality and defying convention in terms of plot or character, but word choice is ripe with potential in this regard. By pairing two unexpected images (as long as they make sense together), you interrupt your reader’s expected train of thought and make them sit up and pay attention, and there’s a natural delight in discovering something new.

Metaphors deepen the reading experience

Something that makes reading (rather than other forms of storytelling like movies) unique is that it has the potential to engage the imagination so intensely that readers experience a story, rather than consume it passively. Invoking sensory detail is one of the best ways to do this. Pairing metaphor with sensory detail amplifies this effect. Make the reader feel.

Similes vs Metaphors

It’s easy to confuse similes and metaphors. A simile tells us something is similar to something else. The words ‘like’ or ‘as’ are used. A metaphor, on the other hand, tells us something is something else. It implies a much stronger connection and can therefore be more powerful.

  • ‘Love is like a thorny rose’ is a simile.
  • ‘Love is a thorny rose’ is a metaphor.
  • ‘Her skin was as white as snow’ is a simile.
  • ‘Her skin was snow’ is a metaphor.

Can you sense the difference in tone? Similes are more grounded, whereas metaphors can be more lyrical. Metaphors can be amplified and extended more easily than similes, too. For instance: ‘Her skin was snow; she melted beneath my touch.’

I see many new writers rely almost exclusively on simile to enhance their descriptions. But if similes become your main tool for creating interesting prose, the novelty wears off. The overuse of the word ‘like’ becomes repetitive, and unintended repetition is poison to good writing because it draws attention to itself, which means your reader becomes aware of the words on the page rather than what the words on the page are saying. It’s important to use any literary device sparingly.

Metaphor-writing methods

Avoid clichés by rejecting your first thoughts

When writing metaphors, train yourself to reject the first idea that pops into your head. It’s probably the first thing you think of because it’s a familiar comparison. And if it’s familiar to you, it’s likely to be familiar to your readers. Remember: the brain delights in the unexpected.

Examples of cliché metaphors: armed to the teeth, bad to the bone, turn a blind eye, bite the bullet, the crack of dawn, burning passion, hammering heart, heart of gold, blood running cold …

Consider your POV character and setting

Make sure the comparison you’re using in your metaphor is something familiar to your viewpoint character. This is a great way to build character and voice, too. For example, if your character is a chef, you could infuse foody words into your metaphors: his face was a mangled plate of ham; she felt the singe of regret; blueberry bruises stained his skin.

Also keep in mind the time period and setting of your novel. Don’t use metaphors like ‘the bowler-hat cave’ if your novel is set in Ancient Rome – I’m pretty sure they didn’t have bowler hats back then.

Don’t mix metaphors

A mixed metaphor is essentially when you use two unrelated images to describe the same thing, illogically combining different images or ideas. By doing so, you dilute the strength of both metaphors because the reader must work to sort out the comparative elements of both images. For example: ‘If we want to get ahead, we’ll have to iron out the remaining bottlenecks.’

By keeping an eye out for cliché metaphors, you’ll more easily avoid mixed metaphors. Cliché metaphors can be so familiar to us that we don’t even see them, which means it’s easy to accidentally mix them up with another metaphor.

Stoking your creativity

Writing metaphors will challenge your creativity. To write beautifully unique and effective metaphors, you’ll need to dig deep into your own experience. Think about the specific feeling or image you’re trying to portray, then think about when you’ve felt or recognised that feeling or image most acutely.

Look out for metaphors in the books you read. Better still, read poetry.

Poetry is rich in imagery and metaphorical language. By reading it, you’ll train your brain into thinking in this way – the more you read, the better you’ll be able to conjure up elegant metaphors, I guarantee it.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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