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?

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