Metaphor, comparing two unrelated things without the use of “like” or “as”, is not just for use in poetry. Take, for example, the following two lines:
Sunrise gave me a headache and left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Dawn’s fire burned into my brain and left on my tongue the taste of ashes.
They both mean the same thing. Which is better writing? Well, it depends what you’re trying to say. Is your protagonist hung over? Or has he spent the night coping with life-altering revelations after a long struggle?
The strength of metaphor is it conveys both information and emotion through vivid imagery.
Great! We all want our stories to be overflowing with riveting images and strong feelings, don’t we?
Er, not exactly. A well-placed, well-constructed metaphor minimizes the need for further description and explanation, but too much of a good thing ranges from funny to exhausting to downright annoying. Save your metaphors for those times when you need to elicit an emotional response from the reader. Face it, there comes a time when your PI or detective is going to come up against muscle who isn’t just a garden-variety mountain, but a freakin’ Alp. When that happens, have fun, but if something doesn’t need to be described or explained, leave it alone.
When you do decide a metaphor is called for, be original. Every woman need not be compared to a plant. Every man does not resemble an animal. Nights aren’t always velvet and stars are seldom sparkling gems.
And sometimes dawn is a wash.
N.K. Wagner is executive editor and publisher of Page & Spine.