Good writing contains layered meanings. It invites a reader to make multiple interpretations and boundless associations while pouring over a text. Metaphors are a writer's most important tools for making pieces deep and poignant. As symbolic connectors, metaphors most often link things we can sense with intangible thoughts or concepts. For example, the metaphor, "his mind was a turbulent ocean," immediately evokes an image in the reader's mind, with which she can better understand how the subject feels or thinks by linking 'his' state of mind to a swirling, gushing body of water. At the same time, the metaphor above also enables the reader to make diverse conclusions about the subject's character. A writer could potentially create an infinite number of connotations about this character if she elaborated on this symbolic representation of her character's mind. Oceans can be calm or peaceful, too. They have tides and weather patterns, which can be (and often are) associated with people's moods.
Another kind of metaphor creates an association between two tangible things to better convey how one looks, sounds, smells, works, or moves. For example, the metaphor, "she sang like a flute," concisely allows the reader to understand how the subject's voice sounds. A writer could elaborate on the 'flute' metaphor as well. The pagan god, Pan, has a flute. So does The Pied Piper. By implicating either one of these mythological figures in a text, a writer can create depth and definition in a character or piece.
There are many more specific types of metaphors with technical names. However, the purpose of this article is to teach you how to use them as basic tools to enhance your writing. It does not really matter what label you slap on a given metaphor. All that really matters is that it adequately conveys your message(s) to the reader and adds layers to your text. Below is a step-by-step process to creating and using metaphors effectively.
Decide what message(s) you would like to send to your reader or how you would like to enrich your text with the layered meanings metaphors can provide. Do not be too specific. If your message is too direct, and you are writing narrative or poetry, then you risk preaching to your reader. Everyone likes to look at the parameters of a situation and make their own conclusions. Metaphors should cultivate the reader's intellectual independence, rather than limit their interpretations to your own. As an example, we will imagine that we want to convey the complex emotions associated with a teenager, who is coming of age, but still does not know what he will do with his life.
Come up with a list of metaphors that can adequately communicate the circumstances in your narrative or poem. Here's a list for our coming-of-age teenager example:
- A tree growing on the edge of a cliff.
- The Leaning Tower of Pisa.
- The San Andreas Fault on the verge of a major earthquake.
- A baby sea turtle that has almost made it to the ocean.
- Someone facing immediate execution by firing squad, unless he confesses.
All of the metaphors above could show the teenage character's state of being to the reader. However, you have to choose one and go with it. If you find the metaphor you have chosen does not work later on, then go back and rewrite your piece with another one until you find the best match. Finding the perfect metaphor is work, but both you, and your reader will be more satisfied when you come up with a profound way to describe a situation or character this way.
Put the chosen metaphor into your piece. Then ask yourself how you might integrate and elaborate on it in other parts of the story. Let us say you have chosen metaphor number four (in step number two) for our teenager. Here is one possible fictional outcome:
Adulthood was a dark ocean. Trent was a baby sea turtle, with his broken eggshell and a flipper trail in the sand behind him. Infinite routes to the relative safety of the water branched out in front of him, but he was paralyzed by instinctual fear of the pitfalls and predators each one of those paths might contain. If he stayed, he would starve or be carried off by birds. If he chose a bad way, ants could tear him apart or he might fall into a pit.
Later on in the story, as Trent becomes an adult, you could elaborate on his perceived success or failure by portraying him in the ocean or a pit respectively. The connective possibilities are endless. Now use Trent's example or come up with your own narrative situations and metaphors for practice.