Figurative Language, and Stuff Like That

I ought to start by defining Metaphoric Construct, but I’m hesitant to do so—namely, because I’m pretty sure I made the whole thing up. I’ve been bandying the term Metaphoric Construct about like an unfortunate hobo at a ritzy party lobs into his first game of badminton, using a dust-broom as a racquet, hoping no one will notice. But, whatever we call it, Metaphoric Construct is not only a consistent source of figurative-language, it’s the well we can depend on when it comes time to draw water to a thirsting story. Such a well does two things: it makes writing metaphors and similes easier, and, perhaps more importantly, it provides us with an organic control of theme.

Of course, it’s helpful for writers to study the many ways we might incorporate figurative-language into our fiction, and while the following four ways are often-used, they hardly serve as a compendium—these methods are but four trees in a forest.

Four Uses of Figurative Language:

  1. To shock into seeing more closely (Juxtaposition). These are usually metaphors.
  2. To guide toward seeing more closely. These are usually similes.

    (any of the above can do the following)
  3. Pull from a Metaphoric Construct to manipulate theme.
  4. Pull from a Metaphoric Construct to enhance/deepen characterization.

The Type 1 Metaphors/Similes, meant to shock into seeing more closely, are best exemplified by that famous Raymond Chandler line:

He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.

Here are a few Type 1’s from Tom Bissel’s story "A Bridge Under Water," published in The Best American Short Stories 2011:

There seemed no place for this already battle-weary argument to go, other than deeper into a bunker, where it might just as well blow its own brains out (pg. 40-41). fact he refused to live within a household, a family, in which religion played any role other than that of an occasionally bashed piñata (pg. 40). had been a hot day and he smelled like the skin under a not-recent bandage (pg. 44).

It’s important to note that the above examples do not necessarily shock us the way reality TV show producers might hope to. Instead, they shock us into seeing because they make unexpected comparisons—as opposed to the Type 2 Metaphors/Similes, which take our hand and lead us to the images.

Here are a few examples of Type 2 Metaphors/Similes from the same story. Notice how these are meant to guide us toward seeing more closely.

...her husband had laughed, once and loudly, like a king at some forced merriment (pg. 39).

She picked up the phone and listened to the harsh European dial tone, so unlike the organic lushness of the North American dial tone (pg. 43).

He winced in the stalwart way of a man being injected with something intended to benefit him (pg. 48).

For Type 3’s, which pull from a metaphoric construct to manipulate theme, let’s get you filled in a bit on this Tom Bissel story "A Bridge Under Water." The two main characters are a couple on their honeymoon in Rome. Soon they find themselves sweaty and tired as expected. Unfortunately its from confrontation, not consummation.

Notice in the following excerpts how Bissel pulls from a consistent language well of “War”. It turns this collection of metaphors and similes into a poem woven through the whole of the piece, and demonstrating a controlled theme.

There seemed no place for this already battle-weary argument to go, other than deeper into a bunker, where it might just as well blow its own brains out (pg. 40-41).

...along the Tiber River, and every twenty yards they came upon a little area that looked as though an ill-disciplined army had bivouacked there...” (pg. 46).

What were such traditions without the tent pegs of religious belief keeping them in place? (pg. 49)

...her husband had responded with such a grenade of ire (pg. 47).

...listening with a sonarlike part of her brain (pg. 50).

All passed through her with no more moment than that of a parachutist through a cloud (pg. 48).

...a room as colorful as a detonated rainbow (pg. 50).

It’s precisely this poetic coherence that allows us a more deft manipulation over theme, and we achieve this poetic coherence by drawing most of our figurative language from the same well—our Metaphoric Construct.

Now how about the Type 4 variety of Metaphor/Simile, that pulls from a metaphoric construct to enhance characterization? In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Joe Kavalier is a “young Jewish artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdiniesque escape.” He’s used these skills to escape Nazi-invaded Prague and land in NYC where he studies magic (including if not especially card tricks, and of course, and especially, escapes that require him to squirrel metal lock-picks into strategic pouches he’s dug into his inner cheek-tissue)… Oh, yeah, and he draws comics!

When Joe is introduced to a man Joe thinks may be familiar, the narration goes like this:

"May I present Longman Harkoo, known to those who prefer not to indulge him as Mr. Siegfried Saks."

Joe had an uneasy feeling, as if the name meant something to him, but he could not quite get hold of the connection. He searched his memory for “Siegried Saks,” shuffling through the cards, trying to pop the ace that he knew was in there somewhere”’ (pg. 232).

Another example:

“George Deasey brought [Joe] a drink that was bright and cold as metal in his mouth” (pg. 243).

Notice how the Metaphoric Constructs of “Magic and Escapism” give Chabon a language well to turn to when he has to write this scene in which Joe searches “his memory for ‘Siegried Saks,’ shuffling through the cards, trying to pop the ace”. Also, the drink tastes of metal, a taste which Joe would know anywhere after all that convenient practice squirreling lock-picks in his mouth.

And let’s not forget the introductory paragraph of Chabon’s novel about such masters of escapism, in which we get the following lines:

 ...back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn...


...they were the dreams of a pupa struggling in its blind cocoon, mad for a taste of light and air.

Good use of a Metaphoric Construct reads naturally because it grows organically from the story, but it can also be used strategically to help us find metaphors and similes, to control the story’s theme, and to enhance characterization. “But isn’t it better when it just happens naturally?” says me, ten years ago, wearing a Metallica t-shirt and shackled to my wallet-chain of angst. “Won’t studying this stuff contaminate my art?” Now I know better.  Painters don’t sit around saying, “I’ve got to paint a forest, but I refuse to develop technique. I think I’ll paint sticks all day until the trees just kind of happen.”

Well, if they do their paintings don’t end up in the MOCA. They end up in the Motel hiding the mold on the bathroom wall, right above a stack of extra TP. No discussion of craft, not once, not ever, is going to write a story for you or stop you from writing it. And the use of a Metaphoric Construct won’t make metaphors for you, anymore than digging a hole in the sand will make water. But knowing where we can go to draw our figurative language allows us a more deft control over our work. And why not know which wells to go to—when it comes time to water all those trees we’ve painted, and will continue to paint, for as long as our forest grows on?

Chris Rosales

Column by Chris Rosales

Christopher David Rosales is the author of SILENCE THE BIRD, SILENCE THE KEEPER, which recently won the McNamara Grant and was short-listed for the Faulkner-Wisdom Award. Most recently his work is forthcoming in 5280: Denver's Magazine. Rosales is a Writer-In-Residence at Colorado Humanities Center for the Book, and a Professor at The University of Colorado at Boulder and Metro-State University, Denver. He is the Fiction Editor of SpringGun Press, and the Founding Instructor at The Boulder Writing Studio. Lindsey Clemons, at Larsen Pomada Literary Agency, represents his novels.

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Amcii Cullum's picture
Amcii Cullum from Columbia, SC; now living in Atlanta, GA is reading currently, several source materials for JavaScript and JQuery May 3, 2012 - 12:36pm

Thank you for this post.  I was helped greatly in coming up with some ideas, after looking at the examples you gave.  They were excellent.  The outline of how to use similes and metaphors was beneficial as well.  Good write-up.

Danny grant's picture
Danny grant May 19, 2012 - 3:47pm

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't"-Douglas Adams (Hitchhikers Guide to The Universe)

Probably one of my all time favorite lines in a novel. Great essay by the way!