Inside the Metaphor

Metaphors. Most of us know we should use them, that they’re a good way to describe, but not everyone has a solid understanding of what they are. Seeing as metaphors are one of the most powerful communication tools between writer and reader, this is one English lesson worth reviewing!

Er, what are they again?

Friend Wiki states: A metaphor is a figure of speech that constructs an analogy between two things or ideas; the analogy is conveyed by the use of a metaphorical word in place of some other word.

I think of it as matching two things in a meaningful way. While a simile gives a likened comparison (object A is like object B), a metaphor states that object A is Object B. The full moon was a glistening pearl in a midnight shell. Love is a teddy bear clutched in a sleeping child’s arms. Mom’s sex talk was an evangelist’s rant about lust being the tool of Satan.

Each metaphor gives a clear image of what the writer wants to get across. It should allude to atmosphere, mood, emotion or characterize. In the case above, LOVE is not a passionate teenage embrace (volatile, emotional), it is not the familiar touch of age-spotted hands (enduring, comforting). It is the teddy bear clutched in a sleeping child’s arms–innocent, unconditional, protective, beautiful. The reader experiences LOVE exactly as we want them to. This is is why metaphor usage is so powerful. The analogy you choose doesn’t only send an instant picture to the reader, it can also show them what you want them to FEEL.

So how do we build strong metaphors? 

1) Write down the thing you want to create a metaphor for. It might be an object, person, emotion, a descriptive element, concept or physical action.  IE: Winter

2) Write down several descriptive details/attributes/free associations about it. IE: cold, death, frozen, snow, ice, white, blanketing, clean, fresh, frost, blizzard, biting wind, renewal, isolation

3) Think about the emotion/atmosphere angle you want to convey in the scene and the meaning you want to get across. Light and whimsical? Dark and depressing? Symbolic? Humorous?

4) Create a list of possible comparables that have #2 in common while keeping #3 in mind. If you need to, start with a cliche to get your brain going, and then branch out into fresher territory. IE: # 3 Dark & depressing angle

Winter was…

…a linen shroud covering an earthy corpse (#2 the look of snow)
…the lonely howl of a wolf, separated from his mate (#2 isolation)
…the final icy exhale of a man on his deathbed (#2 death, endings)

Each of these brings an image to mind that reinforces a dark aspect of winter: death, being alone, finality. Metaphors often work best as a punchline of a descriptive passage, the final thought that summarizes the whole.

5) Choose the one that fits what you want to get across the most.

Metaphors are not only useful to show emotion and atmosphere, they can also work well when you need to describe something yet be economical with words. Equating a dance partner to a headless chicken in his death throws is often more effective more than a paragraph detailing his twitchy dance moves.

Like all things, metaphors should be used in moderation. But if you’re struggling with how to show, want to get more meaning out of your description or want to add a level of sophistication to your writing style, the big M is your friend.  🙂


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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[…] your simile addiction and trundle down to my metaphor post. Take a look at how to craft metaphors and also think about creating evocative, sensory description […]

Darlene E Williams
8 years ago

Awesome article! Printed and bookmarked.

Martha Ramirez
8 years ago

LOVE this post! Can’t believe I missed it last year.

Matthew Rush
10 years ago

Great post Angela. One thing I would like to point out, and this is just my opinion and may only apply to my own writing, but:

I find that metaphors are much more powerful than similes. They are also somewhat harder to come up with. The difference can be quite subtle, but it is there.

Both should be used sparingly, but I find that metaphors, in order to give them the power they deserve, ought to be used slightly less, unless of course you’re going for campy overkill on purpose.

Karen Lange
10 years ago

This is very helpful! Will pass this link along to my writing students. Thanks for all your hard work:)

Susan Kaye Quinn
10 years ago

Love this! I never thought of the mechanics of constructing a metaphor before!

10 years ago

Your blog is a treasure chest filled with gems of knowledge.

How’s that? 🙂
Excellent post!

Claire Dawn
10 years ago

I love a good metaphor! I write them pretty decent. 🙂

Amie Kaufman
10 years ago

This is fantastic, thank you! It’s a really effective way of thinking about crafting better metaphors. A good one can be so powerful, a bad one… well, really bad!

10 years ago

I don’t always post to tell you how brilliant you are, but you are!

I think the best metaphors are the ones that come up unconsciously. Wow! I did that?

The book I read recently that did this very well was Justina Chen Headley’s North of Beautiful. It’s full of cartography metaphors.

10 years ago

For the most part I try to steer clear of metaphors because it’s really hard to do them right. Thanks for the tips though. You have given me the courage and know how to try out a few!

Ruth Donnelly
10 years ago

Excellent post! Thanks, Angela!

10 years ago

Holy cow. Excellent! 🙂

10 years ago

Great post Angela!

Elaine AM Smith
10 years ago

You put the craft back into writing 🙂

Angela Ackerman
10 years ago

So happy to hear others will get use from this one. It really helped me to map it all out like this. 🙂

10 years ago

Oh, I love this!

Cynthia Chapman Willis
10 years ago

So well done! Thank you for this, Angela!

Susanne Drazic
10 years ago

I’m not good with metaphors. Thanks for sharing this information about them.

Stina Lindenblatt
10 years ago

You’re my hero, Angela. I suck at writing metaphors.

10 years ago

Wonderful tips, I love metaphors.

Melissa Gill
10 years ago

Thanks Angela, that’s a great tool you came up with for creating metaphores.

Lenny Lee!
10 years ago

hi miss angela! wow this is good stuff for writing. im gonna copy it and put it in my folder of stuff i got off blogs thats helping me be a better writer. that like stuff is lots easer but you really gotta think about metaphors.
…hugs from lenny

Julie Musil
10 years ago

This is how goofy I am. I get similes and metaphors mixed up all the time. I’m worse than a 10 year old!

Thanks for the amazing tips.

Shannon O'Donnell
10 years ago

Okay, this is a new favorite! I am definitely sending my students to visit you tomorrow. This is the best info for using metaphors I’ve ever seen, Angela. Thanks again. 🙂

Mary Witzl
10 years ago

(And I’ve used a lot more metaphors in my writing after coming here — you’ve definitely been an influence!)

Mary Witzl
10 years ago

I love metaphors. Sometimes it’s a pain in the neck to think of the perfect one for a given passage, but I think it’s always worth it in the long run.

Mary Campbell
10 years ago

thank for the lesson – it was very helpful.

10 years ago

awesome post! I find I use similes quite easily, but remembering to use metaphors is MUCH harder.

Angela Ackerman
10 years ago

I’m glad this is helpful to everyone. Metaphor usage is something that I myself strive to improve upon, and so this post is as much a reminder for me as it is to share with everyone else. 🙂

There is one absolute truth I think we can all agree on: Metaphors done right = powerful writing.

Happy monday all!