Columns > Published on December 17th, 2012

6 Ways You're Molesting Your Metaphors

A good metaphor is an incantation that transports your reader to another world. A good metaphor is an antique key your grandfather gave you that fits perfectly into the lock on your story's meaning. A good metaphor is the smudge at the corner of Mona Lisa's lip that, in its willing disregard for direct truth, allows her smile to freeze, permanently at the edge of life. A good metaphor is a duck. Because ducks are awesome.

But not all metaphors are good, and improper metaphors can be downright criminal. Here are six common ways you're molesting your metaphors. And you need to stop. You sick bastard.

1. Mixing Your Metaphors

Dirty laundry is coming home to roost.
~Ray Romano

Also known as mixaphor, the mixed metaphor is one of the most perverted abuses figurative language can be subjected to. To be powerful, metaphors must be cohesive; the entire metaphoric passage must make sense. When Rush Limbaugh tells us to "button your seatbelts," or a friend tells us their ex is "a poison that lit the world on fire," cringing seems to be the only appropriate response.

Of course, you can mix metaphors to humorous and positive effect if you find the common thread between those metaphors. Doing so is as much fun as shooting monkeys in a barrel, but it's a bridge you should burn when you get to it. In general, keep your metaphors tight, cohesive, and linear.

2. Using Cliche Metaphors

It was just the tip of the iceberg.
~Millions and millions of writers

Cliche metaphors can be tempting; they're seen so commonly because they powerfully express an idea. Or at least they did. Once. These "tried and true" favorites are like overplayed radio songs. We may have a sense of comfortable familiarity with them, but they gradually lose their expressive power and eventually become irritating. If I hear "Achy Breaky Heart" or "So quiet you could hear a pin drop" one more time, I'm likely to get violent.

If you want to get a sense of cliche metaphors in action, read Suzanne Collins. I'm actually a Hunger Games fan, and few people hook readers as well as Suzy does, but there's no denying that she uses enough cliche metaphors to sink a ship. Her metaphors are perched like buzzards on rooftops. As blinding as the noontime sun.

3. Using Ambiguous Metaphors

Her heart was an airplane.

So, was her heart ... flighty? Big, mechanical, and whirring with giant turbines? Uncomfortable and usually late? Did it once fly into the twin towers of your heart? When you choose a metaphor that can be interpreted in a great many ways, you must either clarify what you mean or choose a metaphor with more narrow interpretations.

"Her heart was an airplane: big and heavy, yet somehow always flying." A metaphor like this can be okay, but keep in mind the more you explain your metaphor, the less powerful and more intrusive it becomes. When possible, try to use a succinct metaphor with a clear interpretation.

4. Using Nearly Literal Metaphors

You're a real S.O.B., you know that?
~My mother

While semi-literal metaphors can be amusing when used intentionally, some writers carelessly use metaphoric language that could reasonably be construed as a direct description. If your dog is a disease-ridden cur ... you may have to clarify whether you meant in personality or current health status. If the neurologist was picking your brain for answers to his questions, you'll need to specify some details.

5. Referencing Outside the Common Experience

My love for her was francium-215. 

As a culture, our shared experiences bind us together. We know the same songs, are aware of the same news stories, understand the same jokes, and abide by (or deviate from) the same basic social expectations. However, much of life takes place outside of the common shared experience. So your metaphor about how the insult was a critical hit with a +5 vorpal sword will only be effective when your audience understands those sub-culture reference points. Saying your love was "francium-215" will only work well with those who know what the hell francium-215 is.

These niche metaphors can be fun and powerful; they bind together the sub-culture precisely because what's being referenced is outside the common experience. However, you must be deeply aware of your audience before you leap into these obscure sub-culture references. Using obscure metaphors incorrectly will distract and confuse your audience while adding nothing to your descriptions.

6. Over-Extending Your Metaphors

Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.
~Matt Groening

Extended metaphors can be powerful when wrangled appropriately. (This thorough LitReactor article on extended metaphors from Taylor Houston is well worth a read if you want to dive in further.) However, when a metaphor keeps going for too many miles, it breaks down. You have to get out and open the hood, surrounded by the smoke of your overheated words. You're likely to burn your fingers on the piping. You can bet your brother-in-law, the auto mechanic, will never let you live it down.

The results can be humorous if that's what you're after, but assuming you're trying to evoke a response other than laughter, you need to keep those metaphors in check.

Maybe you've successfully avoided the temptation to molest metaphors in these disturbing ways. Be honest with yourself, though. If you're abusing these helpless pieces of figurative language, you must stop yourself now.

For more metaphor goodness, check out this Chuck Palahniuk article on figurative language, or explore some lessons, games, and exercises in my own metaphor lesson series.

Write on,


About the author

Rob is a writer and educator. He is intensely ADD, obsessive about his passions, and enjoys a good gin and tonic. Check out his website for multiple web fiction projects, author interviews, and various resources for writers.

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