I struggle with metaphors. My attempts are either so wild that no-one understands them, so lame that they break down really easily or so normal that they are indistinguishable from cliché.

I read the answers to this question: What qualities should a good metaphor have? and from it I understand the kind of ingredients that go into a metaphor ('recasts the familiar or mundane as something strikingly different yet truly parallel', 'gives a startlingly vivid picture or brings a surprising insight', 'conveys the essence of the idea in mind and requires no additional explanation', 'original, memorable, and even alliterative', 'easily invoke the idea you're trying to convey, without extraneous or irrelevant details', 'resonates with the audience' and 'may add to the core idea'.

What I need help on are the mental processes of how to gather those ingredients and how to blend them together. I need, if you like, directions to the shops and, thereafter, the recipe I need to follow, in order to cook up a good metaphor. I mean, surely the meal doesn't just appear - tasty and ready to eat!

My question is, therefore: how do I write a good metaphor, in terms of the steps I need to follow?


The question Creating metaphors in poetry asks for ways to 'come up with metaphors quickly and easily' and the answers to that question reflect this, using phrases like 'quick and dirty'. I'm looking for something more considered and thoughtful - a recipe for a gourmet meal rather than cheese on toast.

Standback's comment epitomises what I'm asking: 'The "quick and easy" part of this question (Creating metaphors in poetry) are grating on me - there's no creative formula that's "quick and easy," if there would be, it wouldn't be creative. Maybe change to ask about process and methods to develop a metaphor, even the arduous and time-consuming ones?'

My question is the one that Standback was calling for.

  • Possible duplicate of Creating metaphors in poetry – SF. Jul 12 at 12:43
  • Thanks, @SF. I've edited my question to explain the extra information I'm asking for compared to what's being asked for in the possible duplicate you identified. The Q you identified asks how to write a 'crap metaphor'. I'm asking how to write a 'good metaphor'. – robertcday Jul 12 at 13:11
  • 3
    Writing a thoughtful metaphor is kind of like eating a cheese sandwich. Wait, nevermind. :) – aroth Jul 12 at 14:38

Zoom out. Zoom in.

A metaphor claims that one thing is another thing.

For that to work, the salient feature you are describing about one thing must be THE most important feature shared and exaggerated by the other thing.

So first, we must zoom out: meaning stripping our original thing down to this one most salient detail we are interested in; making the whole thing one pixel on the screen and finding the color of it. That is the one detail.

Then we must mentally zoom in: What real object shows that one color best?

For example, I want to write Allen returning home to the farmhouse for the Christmas break after his first year away to college. When he gets to the gate his dog Bandit sees him from the porch, and runs a hundred yards across the lawn, leaps into his arms then squirms out and twists and turns and jumps about in joy, tail wagging.

Zoom out: The most salient feature in this scene is just the speed of Bandit. Not anything else about the dog, farmhouse, yard, etc. For speed, what is a fast object? bullet, lightning, rocket, missile, cheetah, explosion ... keep going until you have something that doesn't feel like a cliché to you, and you have your metaphor (or simile; "like a missile").

Pull out the salient feature, and try to come up with something original that also exhibits that salient feature. Google it. in this case "fast", or related synonyms for "fast". (quick, swift, speedy).

If you cannot find a suitable metaphor, sometimes a simile can be used where a metaphor falls flat: "as swift as a hawk diving on prey".

Or use the cliché with the excuse your character thinks that way (I know many people that have used the same damn clichés for 40 years).

Or skip it and write a clean and lengthy description, "Bandit leapt from the porch and bounded toward him, at full gallop, at the end leaped into his arms and licked Allen's face with joyful abandon."

It's a brilliant answer from Amadeus (as always). I'd like to add a technique for when you cannot find a metaphor/simile that hasn't already been overused: distracting with detail.

For example, say I want to describe a man listening to me intently. If I were to write:

I’ve never met anyone with such focussed attention; he's a bird of prey.

That's a cliché. But you can distract the reader from it with detail:

I’ve never met anyone with such focussed attention; he’s a bird of prey and I’ve snapped a twig in the undergrowth.

Instead of seeing the bird of prey, a boring comparison, the reader sees a mouse, stepping on a twig, alerting the hawk to its presence and endangering its life, which is far less boring, yet still the same boring metaphor.

A character's perspective

You can use metaphors to provide insight into your character. To borrow Amadeus's example:

I want to write Allen returning home to the farmhouse for the Christmas break after his first year away to college. When he gets to the gate his dog Bandit sees him from the porch, and runs a hundred yards across the lawn...

If Bandit is a thoroughbred on the homestretch, we see Allen still as a country boy. However, if Bandit is the 7 Train rushing into Grand Central Station, we see that Allen now relates more to city life than his former country home.

Try to think of it from the character's perspective. Use the metaphor tell the reader about the character's personality and motivations.

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