Speaking metaphorically. It’s a phrase we all understand. We use metaphor as a way of making something stand in for something else. A bad employee isn’t on the way to being fired. No, he’s a dead duck. We love metaphor in stories because it helps us in two ways. We understand better. We enjoy the images that metaphor brings us , too.
Metaphor is a device in writing and storytelling. But most of us think of something easier when we play with metaphors. We employ simile, the phrases that use “like” or “as.” She was sweating like a harlot in Easter Sunday church, we might say. Or That show was as flat as day-old pancakes. Great fun, similes. In fact, using them gets us onto an easy road to making metaphors. Here’s a fun exercise you can use to make metaphors.
Write a list of 7 nouns down one side of your page. Specific nouns are better. Not “tree” but “live oak.” Not “car” but “minivan.” You wanna see these things better. You want to know what makes them unique.
Now “is like” next to each noun. Or “are like” if you’ve written something “dalmations” for a noun. Remember? Specifics. There we go. Now for the first round of fun. Finish each sentence. Don’t sweat this. You have seven of these, after all.
Dalmations are like checkerboards
Live oaks are like mile markers
A bank safe is like a minivan
Canadian geese are like fact checkers
Plastic wheelbarrows are like circus tents
The Greyhound station is like a church
Black and white movies are like postcards
Pedal steel guitars are like coyotes
There we go. Seven similies. Now for the magic. Strike out the words “is like” or “are like” — just use “is” or “are.”
Instead of dalmations are like checkerboards, it’s dalmations are checkerboards. Or, The mile marker live oaks.
Then you can go one step further and use your metaphor in a phrase like so:
Those mile markers of live oaks
That bank safe of a minivan
You can play with this when you want to call attention to the details of things in a story. It makes images of things that might seem ordinary. They can be events: a Second Wedding. Or places: A Greyhound bus station. Or objects, like plastic wheelbarrows. You’re making poetry, in a way. This is lyrical writing, the kind you hear in songs.
Remember that metaphors are quite a way up on the pyramid of writing skills. The legendary director at Iowa’s Writing Workshop Frank Conroy shows us a pyramid of writing skills. At the bottom are the foundation of meaning, of sense, of clarity. But three levels up is the building block of metaphor.
But try making some today, and have fun. You can go too far, of course. That’s what rewriting is for. And as a lot of us writers say, writing is rewriting. Nobody gets it as perfect as a Marine’s haircut on the first draft. (See what I did there? Didja see?)