What Can the Best Metaphors in Literature Teach Us About Writing?

A big hello and welcome to Savannah Cardova from Reedsy today. She’s got some terrific advice (and resources) on Metaphors, so read on!

Life is a highway. Love is a battlefield. All the world’s a stage. Hope is the thing with feathers.

If you’re familiar with these expressions, you already know that metaphors are all around us — and that some of the most striking ones come from literature. For this reason, writers who want to improve their figurative language would do well to study famous metaphor examples and see how they’re constructed.

But there’s so much more we can learn from metaphors other than how to create an interesting comparison! Indeed, they’re something of a microcosm for writing as a whole — the techniques we use to design metaphors can be applied to countless other aspects of the craft. To that end, here are five lessons from great literary metaphors that you can use to turn your writing into a powder keg (see what I did there?).

1. There’s power in brevity

Let’s return to the examples I cited in my first line — all extremely well-known metaphors, yet none more than six words long. Coincidence? Absolutely not. Just as with business mottos and political slogans, shorter metaphors are much more likely to make a memorable impact. I’ll use another famous comparison, courtesy of the inimitable Bard, to drive this point home:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

There’s a bit of buildup here, but the last four words make the metaphor: Juliet is the sun. What a perfect way to sum up how Romeo sees her — as the center of everything, his source of light and warmth, practically blinding him with her beauty, etc. Reaching a bit further, you might even say that Romeo feels as though he already revolves around Juliet, and perhaps has a sense of foreboding because he understands the danger of getting too close to her.

But having explained it that way, the metaphor loses its initial impact. This is why it’s best to simply present an analogy and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. The same is true of writing in general — brevity is the soul of wit, as another Shakespearean character once noted. So whether or not you’re constructing a metaphor, take care to be concise in your writing.

2. Some references are evergreen

Another great lesson when it comes to metaphors and writing is that certain reference points never go out of style. While this may be less relevant to content creators who strive for topical, Twitter-worthy references, most writers can really benefit from making their metaphors (and all prose) as timeless as possible.

One of the most illuminating experiences I’ve had with figurative language has been reading Madeline Miller’s Circe, which retells the story of the titular mythological figure. Naturally, one repercussion is that all references must be made to things that existed in the ancient past. But Miller tackles the challenge masterfully, resulting in highly affecting metaphors like these:

She was very beautiful, it was true, one of the jewels of our halls.

He was a poison snake, and I was another, and on such terms we pleased ourselves.

Gods pretend to be parents, but they are children, clapping their hands and shouting for more.

All these analogies compare characters in the story to universally recognizable things: jewels, snakes, parents and children. Such things have always had clear connotations, so mentioning them is like drawing upon a highly-charged power source.

This is what writers should attempt to do — use potent language that won’t be diluted by the passage of time. Of course, this may be difficult when the situation is very specific, or if you’re worried about being too many ostentatious with literary devices. But luckily, these kinds of evergreen references are so organic, your readers will hardly even notice them. They’ll contribute to the overall effect without making a spectacle of themselves.

3. The occasional change-up is good

That said, sometimes a bit of a spectacle is exactly what you want. While I advocate for using subtle, organic language 95% of the time, occasionally you want your writing to stop readers in their tracks. And if you want a metaphorto achieve this, you should try juxtaposing two highly dissimilar things. Here’s an exemplary excerpt from Run, Rabbit by John Updike:

He flinches when footsteps pound behind him. But it is just two lovers, holding hands and in a hurry to reach their car, their locked hands a starfish leaping through the dark.

When you imagine lovers holding hands, you probably don’t associate it with a leaping starfish. For one thing, the shape of two hands clasped together isn’t especially star-like; for another, starfish don’t leap. But the illogical nature of this comparison is overcome by the strength of the image. We as readers are swept up by the nonsensical wonder of a leaping starfish — which indeed, may be just as rare and bewitching a sight as true love.

So perhaps what I should say here is not to compare dissimilar things, but things that don’t have an obvious similarity, in order to make the reader really work for it. And this is true of writing as a whole: you don’t want readers to struggle through your text, but the occasional challenge (such as an unusually structured chapter) will keep them on their toes.

4. Lengthy passages should remain clear

On the note of challenges, and as something of a counterpart to my first lesson, let’s talk about extended metaphors. These are metaphors that draw a comparison between two subjects and elaborate upon that comparison by creating additional parallels.

The full versions of both Shakespeare quotes in this article are actually extended metaphors, as are numerous song lyrics (Taylor Swift is particularly skilled in this arena). But my favorite extended metaphor would have to be The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood / And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler, long I stood / And looked down one as far as I could / To where it bent in the undergrowth.

This is only the first verse, but the entire poem is an extended metaphor about the choices of life and the various “roads” one might take. It’s lovely, evocative, and easy to understand, despite its length — which I think makes it the quintessential extended metaphor.

While it may seem like all lengthy pieces of prose are inherently confusing, but they certainly don’t have to be! In that vein, try to be just as clear in your longer passages as in your short ones; this will vastly improve your work, and your readers will surely thank you.

5. The best prose becomes proverbial

As you’ve probably surmised from some of the examples given here, the best metaphors are immortalized in the form of everyday wisdom. Here are a few more you’ve surely heard before:

A leopard can’t change its spots.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

It’s not over until the fat lady sings.

These are all implied metaphors about different kinds of people and situations. But where did they come from originally? Various texts: the Old Testament, Don Quixote, and a short story by Charles Dickens, to be precise. And I’m sure you can think of plenty more common phrases, idioms, and adages that have derived from works of literature.

So if you want to be truly remembered, try to write something pithy and perpetually true that people will say for generations to come. It doesn’t have to be a metaphor — it doesn’t even have to be figurative language! But if you can manage to get to the heart of something in a succinct way, you might just find your words emblazoned on mugs and posted on Wikiquote in the future. And after all, isn’t that every writer’s dream?

Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories (and occasionally terrible novels). You can read more of her professional work on the Reedsy blog, or personal writing on Medium.

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

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, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Description, Guest Post, Mood and Atmosphere, Reading, Setting, Show Don't Tell, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to What Can the Best Metaphors in Literature Teach Us About Writing?

  1. Pingback: Top Pick Thursday! For Writers & Readers 10-24-2019 | The Author Chronicles

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  3. This article reminded me of a panel in a writers conference in which several agents stated they are seeking to represent books that are highly quotable.
    Great article, Savannah.

  4. I love using metaphors and similes, and you have some great things to keep in mind here. I am an intuitive writer where I often write something and know it works, but not always why it works so well. So I always like the opportunity to see a breakdown. 🙂

  5. Savannah, I think you and I may be each other’s spirit animals ;). I LOVE breaking down literary techniques with well-known examples, and you’ve done this beautifully. Thanks so much for sharing this post with us!

  6. Savannah says:

    Thanks for having me, Angela! Always a pleasure 🙂

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