Write a Metaphor

Metaphors are the cold knife in your side, the speed bumps that keep you from picking up writing momentum, the hidden monster lurking in the closet of ... of ... oh, darn it. Metaphors are tough -- no doubt about it -- but if you follow these instructions, they can become the spice in the cuisine that is your written work!


Understanding Metaphors

  1. Understand what a metaphor is. The word “metaphor” derives from the ancient Greek word metapherein, which meant “to carry over” or “to transfer.”[1] A metaphor “carries” meaning from one concept to another by stating or implying that one of them is the other (whereas a simile compares two things by saying one is “like” or “as” the other). To know what to aim for, it may help to look at a few famous examples.
    • The last line of The Great Gatsby contains a very famous metaphor: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
    • The poet Khalil Gibran used many metaphors in his poetry, including this one: “All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.”[2]
    • William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Neuromancer opens with the line: “The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel.” [3]
    • Sylvia Plath’s poem “Cut” uses metaphor to convey a painful experience in a curious tone:
      What a thrill—
      My thumb instead of an onion.
      The top quite gone
      Except for a sort of hinge
      Of skin....
      A celebration this is. Out of a gap
      A million soldiers run,
      Redcoats every one.[4]
  2. Understand what a metaphor isn’t. There are many other figures of speech that create associations of meaning between two concepts, including simile, metonymy, and synecdoche.[5] However, while these are similar to metaphor, they work a little differently.
    • A simile has two parts: the “tenor” (the thing being described) and the “vehicle” (the thing/s used to describe it). In the simile “the brownie was so overcooked that it tasted like charcoal,” the brownie is the tenor and the charcoal is the vehicle. Unlike metaphors, similes use “as” or “like” to signal their comparisons, and thus they’re usually considered a little weaker in effect.
    • A metonymy substitutes the name of one thing for the idea of another that is closely related to it. For example, in many countries the system of royal power invested in a monarch is simply called “the crown,” and in the United States the presidential administration and its authority are often just called “the White House.”
    • A synecdoche refers to a larger concept by using a part of that concept, as in the use of the phrase “hired hands” for “laborers” or referring to one’s car as “my wheels.”
  3. Understand the types of metaphors. While the basic idea of a metaphor is quite simple, metaphors can operate on a variety of levels from very simple to very complex. Simple metaphors may state the comparison between two things outright, as in the example “He may seem mean, but he’s really a cupcake.” In literature, however, metaphors are often extended across sentences or even scenes.[6]
    • Sustained, or extended/telescoping metaphors span across several phrases or sentences. Their accumulative nature makes them very forceful and vivid. The narrator of Dean Koontz’s novel Seize the Night uses a sustained metaphor to describe his wild imagination:
      “Bobby Halloway says my imagination is a three-hundred-ring circus. Currently, I was in ring two hundred and ninety-nine, with elephants dancing and clowns cartwheeling and tigers leaping through rings of fire. The time had come to step back, leave the main tent, go buy some popcorn and a Coke, bliss out, cool down.”[7]
    • Implied metaphors are more subtle than simple metaphors. Whereas a simple metaphor might say that a person seems mean, but is really “a cupcake,” an implied metaphor would attribute cupcake-like characteristics to the person: “He can seem mean until you get to know him, and then you find out he’s all gooey and fluffy inside.”
    • Dead metaphors are metaphors that have become so common in everyday speech that they’ve lost the power they once had because they’re too familiar to us: “raining cats and dogs,” “heart of stone,” “tie up loose ends,” “red tape.” Clichés, on the other hand, are phrases often used to convey significant meanings. In the case of “red tape,” legal documents used to be bundled with red tape (or ribbon) before being sent away to various offices, so a process getting caught up in “red tape” referred to a document that was still waiting to be examined.
  4. Recognize mixed metaphors. A “mixed” metaphor combines elements of multiple metaphors into a single unit, often with awkward or hilarious results.[5] The example, “Wake up and smell the coffee on the wall,” mixes two familiar metaphorical sayings that contain similar commands to pay attention to something: “Wake up and smell the coffee” and “Read the writing on the wall.”[8]
    • Catachresis is the formal term for mixed metaphors, and some writers use them intentionally to create confusion, impart a sense of the absurd, or express a powerful or inexpressible emotion. The poem somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond by e.e. cummings uses catachresis to express how it’s impossible to put his love for his beloved into words that make sense: “The voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses -- / nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands….”[9]
    • Catachresis can also be used to demonstrate a character’s confused or contradictory state of mind, as in the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Hamlet wonders “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them?”[10] Obviously, you can’t really take up arms to fight against a sea, but the mixed-up metaphor helps communicate how troubled Hamlet feels.
  5. Understand how metaphors work. Used wisely, metaphors can enrich your language and enhance your meaning. They can communicate a world of meaning in just a few words (like this sentence just did with “world of meaning”). They also encourage active reading and ask your reader to interpret your writing in his or her own way.[6]
    • Metaphors can communicate emotion behind actions. For example, the phrase “Julio’s eyes blazed” is more vivid and intense than “Julio’s eyes looked angry.”
    • Metaphors can convey immense, complex ideas in a few words. In one version of his long poem Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman tells his readers that they are actually the greatest poetry: “your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face.”[11]
    • Metaphors can encourage originality. It’s easy to rely on everyday language to convey ideas: a body is a body, an ocean is an ocean. But metaphors allow you to convey a simple idea with creativity and expressiveness, something that the ancient Germanic people known as Anglo-Saxons were very fond of: “body” becomes “bone-house” and “ocean” becomes “whale-road”.[12]
    • Metaphors show off your genius. Or at least, Aristotle says so (and who are we to argue?) in his Poetics: “But the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”[13]
  6. Read as many examples as you can find. There’s no better way to understand how metaphors work, and decide what metaphors make the strongest connection with you, than to read works that use them well. Many authors use metaphors, so no matter what your literary tastes are, you can probably find some excellent examples.
    • If you don’t mind difficult reading, very few writers in English used metaphor as well as the 16th-century poet John Donne: poems like “The Flea” and his Holy Sonnets employ intricate metaphors to describe experiences like love, religious faith, and death.[14]
    • The speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., are also famous for their skillful use of metaphor and other rhetorical devices. King’s “I have a dream” speech uses metaphor extensively, such as the idea of Black Americans living on “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”[15]

Writing Your Own Metaphors

  1. Think imaginatively about what you're trying to describe. What characteristics does it have? What does it do? How does it make you feel? Does it have a smell or taste? Brainstorm by writing down whatever descriptions come to mind. Don’t get bogged down by obvious details; metaphor is all about thinking outside the box.[16]
    • For example, if you want to write a metaphor about "time," try writing down as many characteristics as possible: slow, fast, dark, space, relativity, heavy, elastic, progress, change, man-made, evolution, time-out, timer, race, run.
    • Don't self-edit too heavily in this step; your goal is to generate a bunch of information for yourself to use. You can always scrap ideas that don't work later.
  2. Free-associate. Jot down lots of other things that share some of these qualities, but again, don't be too linear; the less obvious the association, the more interesting the metaphor. If you’re writing a metaphor about a concept, flex your brain by trying to equate it with an object. For example, if your topic is justice, ask yourself what kind of animal it would be.[17]
    • Avoid clichés. As Salvador Dalí said, “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.”[18] The goal of metaphors should be to convey your meaning with impact and originality in a compact package: the single intense bite of sea-salted caramel chocolate gelato vs. a whole bowl of bland vanilla froyo.
    • This is a brainstorming activity, so let your imagination run wild! For the "time" example, free-associations could be ideas like: rubber band, space, 2001, abyss, enemy, ticking clock, weight, wait, loss, adaptation, changes, stretching, returning.
  3. Decide what kind of mood you’d like to set. Is there a particular tone you’d like to set or maintain? Does your metaphor need to suit the larger context of whatever it is you’re writing? Use this to weed associations out of your list.
    • For the "time" example, let's go with "celestial/spiritual" for the mood. Eliminate ideas that don't fit with that mood as you develop your ideas: for the "time" example, you might scratch out enemy, 2001, weight, and ticking clock, as these are all fairly "earthly" ideas.
    • Try to keep the nuances of your chosen topic in mind. For example, if you’re comparing the concept of justice to an animal, a “prowling leopard” conveys a very different idea of what you mean by “justice” than an image like a “weary elephant.” Both of these are probably still more apt than using a “newborn kitten,” though.
  4. Run with it. Write a few sentences, a paragraph, or a page comparing your original topic to some of the associations you came up with. Don’t worry about forming metaphors just yet; focus on the ideas and see where they take you.
    • For the "time" example, this step could generate a sentence like the following: "Time is the rubber band, shooting me out into the unknown then bringing me back to center." This sentence has taken one of the ideas from Step 2 and has started attributing concrete actions and characteristics to it -- the starting-place of a metaphor.
  5. Read everything aloud. Since metaphor draws attention to the mechanics of the language, it’s important that your phrasing literally sound right. A metaphor conveying softness shouldn’t have a lot of harsh consonants; one describing depth might include deeper vowel tones (ohh and umm); one conveying redundancy might include alliteration (i.e. repeated sounds); etc.
    • In the example sentence generated in Step 4, the basic idea is there, but the words don't have much power behind them. For example, there's very little alliteration, which might be useful to employ if you want to convey a sense of repetition. The idea of the "rubber band" also suggests something or someone firing the rubber band, which detracts from the metaphor's focus on Time performing the action.
  6. Transform your comparisons into metaphors. Write a metaphorical sentence equating your original topic with one of your other objects or concepts. Does it make sense? Is it original? Does the sound match the feeling? Will a different one sound better? Don’t accept the first thing that works; be willing to discard an idea if a better one comes to mind.
    • For example, adding in alliteration and providing an action for Time that is more independent could result in a sentence like this: "Time is an endless rollercoaster ride; it stops for no one." Now, the focus is entirely on time, and the alliteration of the repeated r sound adds to the sense of repetition that the metaphor's getting at.
  7. Stretch your ideas. Metaphors are often used as nouns -- “her face was a picture,” “every word was a fist” -- but they can also be employed as other parts of speech, often with surprising and powerful effects.[6]
    • Using metaphors as verbs can give actions more punch (sometimes literally!): “The news clutched her throat in its iron fist” expresses a more intense feeling than “She felt like she couldn’t breathe.”
    • Using metaphors as adjectives and adverbs can vividly characterize objects, people, and concepts in just a few words: “The teacher’s carnivorous pen devoured the student essays and belched up the occasional bloodstained comment” conveys the idea that the teacher’s pen (itself a metonym for the teacher) is tearing these essays apart and eating them, leaving only a mess of blood and guts once it’s finished.
    • Using metaphors as prepositional phrases can describe the feel of actions as well the thoughts behind them: “Emily examined her sister’s outfit with a surgeon’s eye” suggests that Emily believes she’s a trained expert in fashion, that she has a meticulous eye for detail, and that she sees her sister’s outfit as a potential disease to be cut off if necessary (perhaps not something that makes her sister happy).
    • Using metaphors as appositives (nouns or noun phrases that rename a nearby noun)[19] or modifiers can add literary polish and creativity to your work: “Homer Simpson sidled onward, a yellow-domed pear wearing pants.”

Sample Metaphors



  • Understanding other figures of speech may provide additional insight into how to associate seemingly unrelated things.
    • personification: association of a non-human (usually inanimate) object with a human characteristic. This is a way of giving depth to a description by bringing in all the lyrical baggage of a term we normally associate with a person. "The intrepid spelunkers entered the mountain's open maw." As you can see, the human characteristic need not be uniquely human, but it often is. "The old familiar chair welcomed her back, as if she had never gone."
    • analogy: comparison of two pairs of things, a:b::c:d (e.g. hot is to cold as fire is to ice). Analogy can be used to make a satirical point, as in "My brother says he's trustworthy, but given his track record, my brother is trustworthy like Machiavelli was humanitarian." While not linear, Spenser's 16th century analogy is subtly sublime, "My love is like to ice and I to fire..."
    • allegory: an extended story in which people, things or ideas represent other things, giving the story two meanings, one literal and one symbolic. In an allegory, nearly every figure and object has a meaning. Just think of Animal Farm, an allegory about the Soviet Union wherein farm animals revolt against their masters, form their own egalitarian society, and gradually recreate the very hierarchy that they fought to escape from.
    • parable: a story that demonstrates the teller's point or lesson. Famous examples include Aesop's Fables (ex. a mighty lion spares a puny mouse who later frees the lion from a hunter's trap – i.e. even the weak have their strengths).
  • Writing is a skill. The more you practice it, the better you get.
  • Remember that stuff called "grammar"? Well, turns out it has a purpose. Be sure you write correctly so your audience clearly understands you.
  • No matter how hard you try, some metaphors just don't work. If this happens, that's okay. Just kill it and move on to something else. Maybe your muse will inspire you in greater ways elsewhere.
  • A good way to improve your metaphor skills would be to start writing poetry. You can even post it on a blog!

Related Articles

Sources and Citations

  1. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=metaphor
  2. http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/famous-metaphors
  3. http://books.google.com/books?id=GdeR5DgzLC4C&pg=PR38&lpg=PR38&dq=%22above+the+port+was+the+color+of+television,+tuned+to+a+dead+channel%22+metaphor&source=bl&ots=meHZ7cDU8O&sig=DMcw5ecUe1k6K1sz8UxWTLoJg7M&hl=en&sa=X&ei=eK1KT83UEoOxiQLl_PHaDQ&ved=0CB8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22above%20the%20port%20was%20the%20color%20of%20television%2C%20tuned%20to%20a%20dead%20channel%22%20metaphor&f=false
  4. http://www.internal.org/Sylvia_Plath/Cut
  5. 5.0 5.1 http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/classroom/terms.htm
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/687/05/
  7. http://literarydevices.net/extended-metaphor/
  8. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/mixed-metaphors
  9. http://literarydevices.net/catachresis/
  10. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/hamlet.3.1.html
  11. http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1855/whole.html
  12. http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/changlang/activities/lang/anglosaxon/anglosax.html
  13. http://www.authorama.com/the-poetics-23.html
  14. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/john-donne#about
  15. https://users.wfu.edu/zulick/341/king.html
  16. http://writeitsideways.com/think-backward-to-write-meaningful-metaphors/
  17. http://www.powerpoetry.org/actions/7-tips-creating-poignant-poetic-metaphors
  18. http://books.google.com/books?id=yPDKXnzgGGcC&pg=PA13&dq=salvador+dali+poet+rose+idiot&hl=en&sa=X&ei=O6JKT46lC4aliQKTsNXaDQ&ved=0CEUQ6AEwAg
  19. http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/appositive.htm