Metaphors be with you

Given where I fall in the writing game, I always feel rather pretentious when I blog on the art and craft of writing, but here goes.

Polonius, in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet said “since brevity is the soul of wit and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes”.  Some people, invoking that, suggest that writing should be as brief as possible, trimmed to the bare bones, told in the fewest words that gets the idea across.

Polonius, however, was a stupid old bore.

The true goal in writing is not brevity, but vividness. How clearly, how vividly one paints the picture in the readers mind.  This is how you get immersion and reader involvement in the story.

And one of the great tools to achieve that is the well-crafted metaphor (and I’ll include simile here as well).  Note what I did above.  I used several standard metaphors as a form of emphasis:  “bare bones”, “paint the picture,” even “immersion”.  And in the Shakespeare quote as well. “soul, “limbs and outward flourishes.”

Or consider another use by Shakespeare in The Scottish Play.  After Macbeth murders the king and then frames and murders the two guards he could have said:

“I feel very guilty about these murders”.

Brief and says what he feels, but not vivid.  Consider instead:

“What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.”

More wordy certainly, but far far more vivid.  We aren’t just told that MacBeth feels guilt for his actions, we see it.  We feel it.  And when Shakespeare wants to echo it again with Lady MacBeth’s own guilt, why it is simplicity itself with:

“Yet here’s a spot.”
“Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”

We don’t have to wait until she references blood a few lines later to know that the spot on her hand is blood.  We’re already primed by the previous metaphor.

Of course in the modern age we are so used to the idea of “bloody hands” is such a common metaphor that we don’t need to be primed for its use.  But even so, the echoing of themes and ideas, including the use of metaphor, through the play strengthens the vividness of the story.

When you write, the challenge is to put the picture that you have in your head in all its glory down onto the page using words.  And that can be a monumental challenge.  To use another metaphor by another poet “All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind” (Khalil Gibran).  But with good use of metaphor, as well as other tools one can help other people’s minds experience that “feast.”

One place I often go for inspiration when it comes to metaphor is music.  Music is very much about feelings and, so often makes intensive use of metaphor.  One of my favorites is Feint, by Epica:

The whole song is practically one metaphor after another building on an emotional theme to the climax:

“This black page in history
is not colorfast will stain the next
all that remains is just a feint of what was meant to be.
This black page in history
is not colorfast will stain the next
and nothing seems, in life and dreams like what is meant to be”

And so we poignantly are shown that the events referenced in the song don’t just affect now, but echo into the future, turning the world upside down.  Now, I don’t know anything about the person this song is in homage to.  I don’t know if I’d agree with the positions expressed or not.  I’ve never really bothered to look into that.  It’s the emotional content of the song to which I’m referring here, and its very vivid use of metaphor to create that emotional content.

Of course, there can be bad metaphors too that kill the imagery and throw one out of the story.  Some examples from student papers:

  • His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.
  • She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just
    before it throws up.
  • The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry
    them in hot grease. (I don’t want to know how the author knows that.)
  • He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East

Well, you get the idea.  A bad metaphor can destroy a piece of writing even more easily than a good metaphor can beautify it.  Either way, the metaphor is a powerful tool.

So go, use metaphor, paint your world in vivid colors, light and dark.

And in the meantime, you might enjoy this story:

A young mother hears the Norns. They tell her of terrible things to come. When Ulfarr wants her gift of prophesy to serve him, he takes her and steals away her children. Can the young mother escape from Ulfarr’s clutches and save her children from him? Only the Norns know.

Click on the cover image to get the book

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