Drag it Out: How to Use Extended Metaphors for Maximum Effect
I love metaphors, and I find them useful in all facets of my life as a way to understand new concepts by comparing them to familiar concepts. Take my work history, for instance. In my early post-college days, I worked as a nanny for a family with three young boys. My days were spent running around making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be, had what they needed, and was doing what they were supposed to be doing. My next job had me working as an administrative assistant at a shipyard, supporting an office of 40 men. My days were spent running around making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be, had what they needed, and was doing what they were supposed to be doing. I often told people I went from babysitting three little boys to babysitting forty big boys. The environments were entirely different (for one, I never had to wear a hard hat while I was a nanny) but overall, my role as caretaker to the people I worked with wasn’t much different.
In literature, metaphors are used much the same way. Writers employ metaphors to draw comparisons between two disparate concepts, using one to make a point about another. As you probably remember from your school days, a metaphor is most simply expressed as a simile. Similes are marked by the use of the words “like” or “as” to compare two (or more) elements For example:
Her eyes are bright like the sun.
Her eyes are bright as the sun.
In the examples above, “like” and “as” are used to link the concepts of “her eyes” with the properties of “the sun”—brightness, in particular. Metaphors eliminate the need for a specific word to make the comparison. Instead, metaphors link two ideas directly without the intermediary. On the most basic level, the sentence above could be written as a metaphor like this:
Her eyes are the sun.
The connection between her eyes and the sun (and all its properties) is here made direct and, in a sense, stronger. The sentence and the image it conveys are much stronger without the “like” or “as” to weaken it.
Extended metaphors (also known as a conceit) take two (sometimes more) concepts and evaluate them over a series of sentences to create a more intricate picture of how one thing is like the other. Extended metaphors use complex logic such as the following to flesh out the argument:
- Compare (how one is like the other)
- Contrast (how one in unlike the other)
- Juxtaposition (placing both ideas together)
- Analogy (the relationship of one to the other)
- Extrapolation (inferring or hypothesizing the unknown about one using the known of the other)
There are no particular parameters defined for how long or short an extended metaphor can be, but in typical use, an extended metaphor is more than one sentence that draws the comparison and can go as long as a whole paragraph, poem, story, novel, etc.
A Master at Work
Anne Bradstreet was born in England in 1612 and emigrated to New England in 1630. She was the daughter of English nobility, and her father and husband were both involved in the government of the Boston settlement. Though Anne came from an educated family, and enjoyed reading and learning, she lived the life of any wife in those early, difficult days in the new world—she dealt with illness, food shortages, terrible weather, eight children, and long absences from her husband. For solace, she wrote, but she didn’t share it beyond her tight circle of friends and family because the Puritan society she lived in didn’t value the opinions of woman, and certainly would have shunned her for making her thoughts public.
However, Anne had some fans. In 1650, her brother-in-law secretly copied some of her poems and had them published in England without her knowledge or permission. The following poem summarizes some of Anne’s thoughts on the event.
Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did'st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call.
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight,
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet.
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun cloth, i' th' house I find.
In this array, 'mongst vulgars may'st thou roam.
In critic's hands, beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known.
If for thy father askt, say, thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.
Note how she weaves her experience of motherhood into a discussion of her book as a child snatched from her before she was ready. Riddled, of course, with what would have been then considered appropriate feminine submission and self-deprecation (“blushing”), we modern readers can nonetheless infer that she may actually be a little proud of her “rambling brat (in print)” for after attempting to “cast [it] by as once unfit for light” she ultimately notes that “affection” caused her to attempt revision of her work. Note also how she uses terminology that can apply to both a child and book or piece of writing.
- “Feet” – can be physical feet (the things at the end of legs) or poetic feet (the metrical unit that determines how syllables are accented in a poem, e.g. iambic pentameter which means five feet/line of poetry that use the iambic meter)
- “Rags” – clothing or the fabric cover of a book
- “Rubbing off a spot” – wiping dirt from a child’s face or rubbing out a word or letter on a page
Despite just being an excellent example of extended metaphor, there is much to find exceptional about this poem. For one, any writer or artist can relate to her attitude of apprehension about how her art will be received by “the critics”. I personally share her desire to continuously revise, even if it doesn’t do any real good. Pair this nearly universal notion for artists of any medium in any generation with the knowledge of the kind of culture Anne wrote her poems in, and it’s hard not to be in awe of this woman.
Metaphor as Rhetoric
Sure, every author from Shakespeare to Jim Goad has used extended metaphor and finding an example is easy as G-o-o-g-l-e. Off the page, too, there are plenty of places where extended metaphor is used heavily. In fact, I would argue that the extended metaphor is the go-to device for most rhetoric, whether written, spoken, sung, or even presented visually.
A few years back when I lived in Seattle, I sometimes passed street protesters with signs depicting Obama with a Hitler mustache. When I stopped to learn what the heck they were protesting in that way, I found out they were handing out written materials that likened the Obama healthcare reform bill to the medical experimentation performed on inmates of the concentration camps during the Second World War. The Obama as Hitler image paired with the literature and the talking points the protesters had prepared to created a dynamic rhetoric that included extended metaphor in a variety of mediums. While I thought their method was inflammatory and their message untrue, I understood why they used strongest possible metaphorical comparison to make their point—it attracted a crowd. Had they just passed out a brochure detailing their objections to the proposed policy, likely no one would have paid attention. As it was, scores of people stopped to curse the crew or give a high five or take a picture.
Using the audiences’ experience, prejudices, assumptions, and connotations about one element to make a statement about another is a very strong way to make a point because it affects both the logical and the emotional centers of the audiences’ brain. The protesters hijacked the notion of Hitler and all the negative emotions that surround the man, his policies, and his actions to make a statement about an entirely different man with different policies, and decidedly different actions. However, using only one or two lines of comparison between the two, they were able to connect the entire negative image of Hitler with Obama.
When building an extended metaphor—whether for the purpose of rhetoric or just plain storytelling—there are some practices to keep in mind.
- Juxtapose known concepts with unknown or lesser known concepts. Take a cue from Anne Bradstreet and combine something you (or your audience) know well with something that is new to you (or your audience). Anne gave birth to 8 children in her lifetime, so the anxieties of motherhood were known to her. On the contrary, becoming a published (and relatively well-received) author was entirely new to her. To conceptualize her experience, she wrote about in terms of a mother too soon separated from a child.
- Be consistent. Ensure the language you choose equally applies to both situations. A great way to keep this in check is to follow the rules of the grammatical concept of parallelism. In a parallel structured sentence, all parts of the sentence should be grammatically equal. For instance, verbs should be in the same tense (though they can be differently conjugated according to the subject), nouns should be the same number (either singular or plural), and the subject/verb structure should be equal. An example of a parallel sentence:
Before Sarah took a shower, she fed the dog and the cat, she woke the baby and the husband, she made the bed and the breakfast.
Note how the verbs fed/woke/made are all in the same tense (past perfect) and each verb applies equally to each element: fed – dog/cat, woke – baby/husband, made – bed/breakfast. Also the structure of each of the independent clauses includes the same order of elements; subject (she), verb (fed/woke/made), object (dog/baby/bed) and object (cat/husband/breakfast). Each element parallels the other two elements in structure and tense thus creating a balanced sentence.
Extended metaphors can also benefits from this sort of balance. Like the parallel structure, verbs and other word choices should apply equally to either element. As I noted above, Bradstreet’s use of “feet”, “rags” and “rubbing off a spot” were all terms that applied to either a child or a book.
- Avoid clichés. Pretty please don’t compare relearning an old skill to “riding a bike” or conquering an old fear to “getting back in the saddle.” Maybe mentioning it is cliché in itself, but the most successful metaphors are the most unexpected. It could be said that comparing one iconic political figure to another (Hitler and Obama) is not unexpected, and it could even be said that parenthood and creating art have been compared before—there is NOTHING new under the sun, right?—but previous examples aside, there are some great unexpected metaphors yet to explore. Unexpected doesn't have to mean complex, either, just unique but believable. Here’s a recent example from the "Shouts and Murmurs" section of the New Yorker that compares breaking up with a baseball trade.
Josh always knew, on some level, that it was possible for him to get traded. He’d seen it happen to dozens of guys over the years, including some of his closest friends. It was part of the game. Still, he had never been traded himself, and he was having some trouble accepting it. He kept expecting someone to tap him on the shoulder and tell him the whole thing was a joke.
“Here’s your stuff,” Kate said, dropping a duffelbag at his feet. “Goodbye.”
Josh stared at her for a moment, expecting some kind of encouragement or sympathy. But Kate just stood there, her eyelids fluttering with impatience.
“So that’s it, then,” Josh said. “After three and a half years.”
“What do you want me to say?” Kate snapped.
He picked up the bag and slung it wearily over his shoulder. There was nothing he could do. When your girlfriend decides to trade you, you’re through.
“I just don’t get it!” Josh shouted, over the din of the jukebox. “I thought things were going really well.”
“They weren’t,” his brother Craig said. “The writing was on the wall.”
“Oh, yeah. Your record’s been sinking all year. You told me yourself you had a five-argument losing streak. And then there were all those errors.”
Josh nodded ruefully. There had been a lot of errors this year. Forty-five Missed Compliments, three Forgotten Events, twelve Accidental Insults—he’d been playing like a rookie.
Craig squeezed his little brother’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Josh,” he said. “Believe me, I know what you’re going through. Remember in ’04-’05? When Zoe traded me?”
Josh nodded. They’d come to the same bar then.
“I was devastated,” Craig said. “I’d just taken her to Henry’s Inn for her birthday—you know, that fancy place with all the candles? Got her a steak, gave her a necklace, took her to a show, massaged her feet . . .”
“You hit for the cycle?”
“Uh-huh. Then I wake up the next day and she’s giving me my marching orders. Tells me she needs to ‘shake things up’ if she wants to remain a contender.”
“It was right before Valentine’s Day.”
“Of course,” Josh said. “The Trade Deadline.”
“Exactly. You know what the worst part is? I know the guy she traded me for. And he’s garbage.”
“Yeah, he’s some kind of banker. Always looking at himself in the mirror and fixing his goddam tie. It’s, like, ‘Come on, you traded me for this guy?’ I mean, O.K., his stats are pretty good. He’s got me beat in Money, and his Sex Numbers are impressive. But what about intangibles? What about Attitude? Intelligence? Effort? Those things have got to count for something!”
He ate some potato chips and wiped the grease on his jeans.
“Who am I kidding?” he muttered. “These days? The only thing they care about is the bottom line.”
When Kate had offered Josh his contract, he was so excited that he barely bothered to read it. He realized now that he should have perused the fine print. According to the trade clause, he had seventy-two hours to get his stuff out of her apartment. His Sexual Privileges were completely revoked, along with Hugging Rights and Injury Sympathy. It was insane. Why had he given her so much power in the first place?
He was struggling to get through the clause on Mutual Friends—the footnotes alone were five pages—when he heard a knock on the door. He took a long, slow breath and opened it.
Kate’s new boyfriend smirked down at him. He had tattoos on his neck and was wearing a scarf and shades, even though it was summer and he was indoors.
“ ’Sup,” he said.
Josh forced a smile. There was no reason to be impolite. It was an awkward situation, but what could he do about it?
“ ’Sup,” he responded.
The two men shook hands, reached into their pockets, and exchanged keys.
“This one’s for Kate’s lobby,” Josh explained. “And this one’s for her door. You have to kind of push it in and then turn.”
The man nodded.
“Lisa likes it from behind,” he offered.
Josh nodded awkwardly.
“O.K.,” he said. “I guess that’s it, then.”
“What do you mean, ‘an artist’?” Craig asked. “Like, in advertising or something?”
Josh swallowed. It was taking him a tremendous amount of effort to get the words out. It was as if his tongue were coated with clay.
“He does performance art,” he mumbled. “Based on Camus . . . and Sartre.”
“Jesus,” Craig said. “She traded you for that?”
He ordered another round of drinks.
“Is it all finalized?” he asked.
“We both passed our physicals. He’s probably at her place by now.”
He banged his fist on the bar.
“Damn it!” he said. “I know I’m not an all-star, all right? My job is boring, I don’t understand art, and I like bad TV! I just . . . I thought I was worth something.” He shook his head. “She must have really wanted to get rid of me.”
Now You Try
Below is a list of concepts and objects. Pick two and use one as a metaphor for the other. Write at least five sentences or lines of poetry.
- Dancing with the Stars
- High heels
- Scotch tape (or similar)
- Horror movies
*Photo via Meet A Meaningless Metaphor
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