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What makes a good metaphor?

We’ve all heard them, read them, sometimes written them—those cringe-worthy similes and metaphors that make us wonder what planet the authors came from. Bad metaphors make for good comedy. We get emails with laugh-out-loud examples from student essays, such as:

  • He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.
  • She was as easy as the “TV Guide” crossword.
  • The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.
  • She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

You get the idea. During my beginning years as a writer, I confess that I too occasionally dipped into the bad-metaphor well. Embarrassing, right? But then I got better. I worked at it. I practiced. When I made the leap from writing poetry to writing stories and books, I made another major discovery about what makes a good metaphor.

Not only do metaphors need to be original but they have to fit the circumstances of your story. Your metaphors and similes will be most successful if they arise organically from your story’s environment.

Example: In my memoir, I originally wrote that my father’s moods were as unpredictable as a nest of rattlesnakes. My writing group pointed out to me that rattlesnakes aren’t indigenous to the setting of my story. It’s still a good metaphor but not for the world of my story. I changed the line to read: My father’s temper was as unpredictable as the riptides in our bay. An apt metaphor that now fits the story and its environment.

Metaphor Practice: With your current project in mind, do a timed write for six minutes as follows: pick a person, place, thing, or emotion that you want to describe using a metaphor. Write it down on your paper. Now think of your story’s environment and setting. Write without stopping for six minutes. Write down any connections that come up, even if they seem silly. It’s important to get the silly stuff out of the way, so the gems can be found.

Make metaphor practice part of your day. Practicing metaphors a few minutes each day before you begin your writing is a great way to get warmed up. Singers warm up before they sing. Why not you?

Stay tuned for more metaphor exercises…

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