Figures of Speech, Part 2

Our previous episode on figures of speech ended with a promise to explore the exciting world of metaphor! So here goes–duck-out-of-water

 

A metaphor is a comparison in which the thing compared is represented as actually being the comparison. Or, to use the sixth-grade schoolroom definition:

A metaphor is a comparison which does not employ the world “like” or “as.”

That makes metaphors a little trickier than similes, which you can always spot by the telltale “like” or “as.” But it also makes them more flexible and powerful. For instance, which of these statements in the following pairs seems more forceful to you?

  • All the world is a stage.
  • All the world is somewhat like a stage.
  • War is hell.
  • War is really a lot like hell. Ya know?

 

The comparisons above are between nouns, but verbs can also be used metaphorically. Here’s what I mean:

Keli floated all the way to gym class.
Rover only shrugged when I said, “Go fetch, boy!”

No girl can float (on her own power, at least), no matter how happy she is. Rover can’t shrug, mostly because he doesn’t have shoulders–or, we might assume, the specific “shruggy” feeling to move them. But the verbs act as signal metaphors, calling up comparisons that aren’t clearly stated.

 

So metaphors can be short and punchy, but they can also be very elaborate. Here’s an example of extended metaphor:

A single cloud appeared in the sky that afternoon, reclining on the wide blue mattress of sky. But then, as though angered by something it saw below, it darkened into a frown. Other clouds gathered around, muttering in low rumbles of thunder, forming a solid mass of displeasure. Just as Carly and I were leaving for the soccer tournament, they dumped on us.

Okay, you may like that kind of writing, or you may think it goes overboard and takes the life preserver with it. But the beauty of language is that even though it operates by firm guidelines, there’s a lot of room for play. Playing with words is how a writer develops a style. Just for fun, try developing extended metaphors from at least one of the following sentences. Think about the basic comparison, then write at least two more sentences to develop it. Notice that the first sentence is a simile and the other two use a verb.

 

Night came on like a burglar.
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The forest whispered as I started down the path.
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A row of racecars pawed the startling line, raring to go.
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Metaphors can be especially useful when you’re trying to describe an abstract quality–that is, an emotion or virtue that can’t be seen or heard or touched. About fifty years ago, a little book called Happiness is a Warm Puppy┬ábecame a huge best-seller. Each page spread contained one metaphor comparing the emotion of Happiness to a concrete experience or object, such as “Happiness is a handful of jellybeans–but no black ones.” (I’m not quoting this exactly, since I lost my copy of that sweet little book a long time ago). Some of the comparisons seemed as sticky as jelly beans, but the book made enough connection to real happiness to leap off the bookstore shelves. (Did you catch my metaphor?)

For practice, try writing four lines of metaphor to describe one or two of the following: depression, excitement, love, justice, disappointment, satisfaction, patriotism, joy.