Think Backward to Write Meaningful Metaphors

by Sarah Baughman

Woman outside thinking with chin on hands

Today’s article is written by regular contributor Sarah Baughman

Ugh, Mrs. B.!” my student groaned, rolling his eyes. “Why can’t this author just say what he actually means?!”

We were reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and my student wasn’t the only one in the class who seemed weary of reading about pythons that were really hoses, symphony conductors that were really firemen, an island that was really a face. They wanted clarity, not guesswork.

I don’t begrudge them their frustration—metaphors can be tricky. However, it’s helpful to think of them not as puzzles writers use to baffle us, but rather as keys unlocking more layers of meaning than we could possibly gain with a literal description.

Wait a second, I just threw a couple metaphors in there without realizing it. Puzzles? Keys? Seems pretty sneaky, but honestly, I didn’t mean to! They just popped out!

The fact that I made the comparisons subconsciously shows that the human mind, in an effort to make sense of its world, is already constantly linking people, objects, ideas, and experiences. Metaphors might seem convoluted, but they’re really outward expressions of the connections we already make in our daily lives. They add depth and insight to our writing.

Still, not all metaphors are created equal; some are more powerful than others. The best ones enhance our understanding of the topic at hand, helping us grasp associations and characteristics we might not have noticed before.

Finding the layers

“But he is saying what he means!” I told my skeptical student. “Look, the metaphors are actually efficient. Bradbury describes the fire hose as a ‘python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world’ (pg. 3). Sounds complicated at first, but think about how much you learn about the hose just by realizing that it’s like a python. A hose by itself is just an object, neither good nor bad. The metaphor, just one word, helps us know exactly how to feel about it.”

Metaphors work nicely when, despite their obvious connection to the topic, they have some key differences as well—when they compare, for example, a living thing (like a python) to an object (like a hose).

The python metaphor also works well because it contains both physical and intangible similarities that deepen our understanding of the concept. Sure, a hose is shaped like a snake, making the initial connection obvious. But there’s more to it than that– this is no garter snake. Pythons are the world’s longest snake, frighteningly powerful, carnivorous. They kill easily, squeezing their prey until it dies (interestingly, they aren’t poisonous, which makes Bradbury’s mention of “venom” an interesting discussion topic–but I digress).

In Fahrenheit 451, the larger-than-life dictatorial government invokes fear, dominating not only people’s lives but their thoughts, arguably “constricting” their instincts and feelings until they lose all sense of self, a spiritual “death” of sorts. I could go on, but what’s nice is I don’t have to—the metaphor does it for me. With one image, it conjures up a host of associations that enrich my understanding of the scene, and it ends up packing considerable more punch than “The fireman sprayed the house with a hose.”

How can we write metaphors as complex and meaningful as Bradbury’s?

Writing metaphors backwards

1. What are the defining characteristics?

Choosing meaningful metaphors can begin with recognizing the distinct characteristics of a character, object, or setting.

For example, let’s shift gears and imagine Bradbury’s character, Mildred. (Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book; the following description is all you’ll need. ) She’s emotionally detached and, while she’s not cruel to her husband, she’s not loving either. In fact, she doesn’t seem capable of really feeling much at all, and she responds to other people’s displays of emotion with fear and confusion.

2. Focus on a particular situation or scene that highlights some of the key characteristics you identified. 

In one scene, Bradbury’s Mildred attempts suicide. The main character, Montag, enters his wife’s bedroom to find her lying comatose on the bed. In this scene, her personality has reached its most extreme consequence, plus her physical state perfectly mirrors her emotional state. It’s a great place for a metaphor.

3. Think of some other objects that share characteristics you identified in Step 1, also keeping in mind how the specific situation reveals the character. 

In this scene, Mildred is both emotionally and physically detached. She is completely separated from her husband, her home, her world. She’s isolated.

What else is isolated? An oasis in the desert? Fine, but the connotation of an oasis is wrong; it’s too positive (Mildred is hardly a source of refuge).

What about a tree shedding its leaves too early, rotted at the root? Or what about an island? Bingo! Bradbury ends up comparing her to just that.

4. Extend the initial comparison with a complete image. 

Saying Mildred is like an island doesn’t really feel like enough. Moving past a single word and creating an image to round out the specific characteristics you choose to emphasize is more effective.

Bradbury’s final metaphor comparing Mildred to an island is written as a simile: “Her face was like a snow-covered island upon which rain might fall, but it felt no rain; over which clouds might pass their moving shadow, but she felt no shadow…” (pg. 13).

It’s perfect. Immediately, we understand that this is an impenetrable character, someone unmoved by attempts at nourishment or warning. We imagine an island, icy and uninhabited, surrounded by waves nobody would want to cross. We might even shudder as we read it…which of course, when we’re dealing with metaphor, is exactly the point.

Do you enjoy using metaphors in your writing? What are some challenges and successes you have experienced as you work with metaphors?

  • Jodi Lobozzo Aman

    The comment section is hidden beyond all this stuff. I scrolled up and down many times before I found it! (just some feedback!)

    Anyway, I love metaphors. It gives us distance we need to assess life from a different perspective. I distant platform that can help people heal!

    • Sarah Baughman

      Thanks, Jodi. I like your point about metaphors bringing some distance, enabling us to shift our perspective. It’s so important, whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction, to achieve that deeper understanding.

  • Guilie

    Excellent post! I’ve recently been struggling with some metaphors in my WIP, so this came at the perfect time. I agree–metaphors are a great way to describe things in ways that poke at the reader’s consciousness, that bring the scene alive, that make them *feel*. Thanks for sharing!

    • Sarah Baughman

      Thanks, Guilie! I’m glad to hear the post came at a good time…best of luck on your WIP.

  • Carl D’Agostino

    Creative metaphors keep me reading. Just plot and adjectives and adverbs are empty writing. I usually write them in back page of book I’m reading.

    • Sarah Baughman

      Agreed. Metaphors make writing art. I like your method of tracking them as well.

  • Rose Byrd

    Oh, dear Sarah: This is the topic nearest to my poetic heart of any published here at Writeitsideways since I started following it last autumn. Your words:
    “However, it’s helpful to think of them not as puzzles writers use to baffle us, but rather as keys unlocking more layers of meaning than we could possibly gain with a literal description.” express exactly how I view my own use of metaphon in my current adult fairytale series. Thinking the puzzle out “backwards” is a totally inspired and practical way to edit and verify metaphors. I recently had a follower comment that they were not sure of all the implications of my metaphors, but they could tell I had meditated long and hard on them. They were exhilirated while reading that certain post but were unclear of all the layers of meanings. Your method of unraveling my metaphor by thinking backwards is absolutely what I must do with that post as I polish it and include it in my book manuscript. Thank you more than I can say!

    • Sarah Baughman

      Rose, I’m so glad the post was helpful for you! I think it’s a good thing when metaphors invoke a sense of mystery. You’re supposed to have to grapple with them and wrestle with the complexity they reflect. I am very intrigued by your WIP on fairytales. Have you by any chance read Anne Sexton’s book of poetry called Transformations? It puts a fascinating spin on classic fairy tales.

  • DaveK

    But about that digression, when I read ‘python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world’ I was immediately thrown out of the story. Did the author get it wrong on purpose? If so what was the additional meaning? If it was an error than can I trust other references?

    In either case I’m still out of the story and that can’t be good.

    • Sarah Baughman

      Dave, it bothers me too and I can’t figure it out. It seems like a mistake…yet if it were, you’d think somebody would have caught it. I can’t think of an additional meaning, though I’ve tried. If anyone else reading this post has ideas, I hope they share them. In my view, the metaphor would definitely be more powerful if pythons actually spit venom!

      • Emma

        Maybe it is purposeful. A python is powerful (like most governments), but this python has venom, which is something it shouldn’t have. Maybe the venom is a metaphor of power that shouldn’t exist.

        And maybe I’m overthinking. Writers make mistakes, too, right?

        • Sarah Baughman

          That’s a great interpretation. But yes, I suppose even Ray Bradbury is allowed to make mistakes! :)

  • Frederick Fuller

    The moon was a priest’s host hung in a tree.

    • Sarah Baughman

      That’s a great one–thanks. Makes the distant moon seem like something we could grasp…and be sanctified in doing so!

  • Debra Eve

    I’ve always struggled with metaphors. Fantastic method, Sarah!

    • Sarah Baughman

      Thanks, Debra! I’m glad it’s helpful.

  • Stephanie Scott

    I appreciate metaphors in writing but I’m not good at them. I usually end up still “telling” vs. “showing.” I have to write and rewrite them so much it seems forced. Not as easy as it looks!

    • Sarah Baughman

      Stephanie, metaphors are definitely tricky and it is often tempting to “tell” instead. Sometimes I also find it hard to make sure the metaphor adds actual meaning on multiple levels. I’m a big believer in reading, though; since you already appreciate the metaphors you read, they will eventually get easier to create.

  • Suzannah Windsor Freeman

    This is a brilliant and helpful breakdown, Sarah! When I’m writing, metaphors just seem to come to me. Once in a while I’ll cut/revise them when I’m editing, but they do tend to come naturally for me. Still, this is a great way to make sure your metaphors make sense and add power to your story. Thanks!

    • Sarah Baughman

      Thanks, Suzannah! I find metaphors come to me as well, but I often go back and edit for precision…I like to make sure their meaning carries through and is consistent.

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  • Susan @ 2KoP

    I wish metaphors came easily to me as a writer. They don’t. It seems to me that great metaphors fit so seamlessly into a story that they create a perfect, indelible image without drawing the reader out of the plot. I like Carl’s idea of tracking good metaphors. Perhaps that will help me write better ones.

    I’m thoroughly distracted by poor metaphors and forced similes. Sadly, I tend to notice the bad ones much more than the good ones.

    Thanks for breaking down the process a bit. It should help a lot. Maybe I’ll come back with a good metaphor for how helpful your post is once I figure out how to create one.

    • Sarah Baughman

      Well said, Susan– metaphors should keep readers in the plot and enhance, not distract, the message. I look forward to your metaphor– I’m sure you’ll come up with a great one. :)

  • Christy

    Note to self: read Fahrenheit 451. A good description of a metaphor and its use!

    • Sarah Baughman

      Definitely, Christy! Bradbury is a master of metaphor. Hope you enjoy the book and thanks for stopping by.

  • Von

    Wow Sarah, this is great stuff. Thank you so much for sharing it! I’ll be back to visit–definitely!!

    • Sarah Baughman

      Thanks, Von! I’m glad you found the post helpful.

  • Maryan Pelland

    Metaphors can make reading lush and rich, and you explained them well. One problem inexperienced authors have (or maybe even experienced ones) is using too many so the reader gets pulled out of the story trying to visualize the ideas. Another is making them too verbose or involved. If the imagery makes me jump out and stop living in the prose, it isn’t workable for me.


    • Sarah Baughman

      True, Maryan; thanks for your comment. Perhaps metaphors need to both stand out and blend in…they need to challenge us to think more deeply about the concept at hand but should never detract from the pace of the prose.

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