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I just had this sentence off my head:

A crown of fire spread through the country consuming everything on its way.

What I mean by empty metaphor is a metaphor that doesn't really have any meaning or even purpose. The same sentence could be replaced with the following:

A circle of fire spread through the country consuming everything on its way.

Also, I don't even think crown would make sense even if the "fire" was spread by an evil king. What do you think?

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    just a side note, I consider the sequel to Eragon, Eldest, nearly unreadable with how many pointless metaphors and similes it had. One or two metaphors that don't hit the mark are fine, just don't flood your story with them – BKlassen Feb 26 at 23:41
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    One example that I remember being particularly pointless was 'his fingers were as numb as frozen wood' – BKlassen Feb 26 at 23:52
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    do inanimate objects become numb though? I think not, making it a poor analogy and the frozen detail moot – BKlassen Feb 26 at 23:56
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    Just about the phrase "crown of fire", there is actually a type of bushfire called a "crown fire". It's a fire that spreads through the treetops, usually with incredible speed. So at first your metaphor just made me think that it was literally a crown fire, which seems not to be what you're aiming for. So maybe "circle of fire" would be better in this case, anyway – s.anne.w Feb 27 at 1:08
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    @BKlassen This is true. While I get the impression some authors think metaphors always aid in describing things, overuse of similes and metaphors can actually obfuscate what the author is trying to say, by drowning their narrative in a sea of words. – DoctorPenguin Feb 28 at 9:08
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It isn't exactly empty; a spreading circle of fire might look like a growing crown; with high fire on the perimeter and no fire in the middle. (But ending with "on its way" throws me, it should be "consuming everything in its way").

That said, aside from your example, if your metaphor is obscure and has no obvious application to what is being described, then it breaks the flow of reading because the reader struggles to reconcile this. That would be bad style.

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    The word way throws me as well. I'd use "path" considering the writing style, and "consuming everything in its path" is more commonly used. – Anoplexian - Reinstate Monica Feb 27 at 17:41
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    @Anoplexian Or "destroying everything in its path." – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Feb 27 at 18:25
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This isn't bad style

"A crown of fire" is a an evocative statement full of imagery and connotations. Instantly, I can imagine the burning ring of flame, progressing outward and reaching up to the sky. The sentence may not make literal sense but certainly is a good description.

In contrast "a circle of fire" seems somewhat lame. It describes the physical shape of the fire (potentially 'ring' would be better) but it does little to describe the appearance of the flame.

More generally there isn't really such a thing as "bad style" just different style. Whether this is good or not depends on if it fits into the style and structure of the rest of your work. A single empty metaphor in an otherwise literal piece will feel out of place. But if your work is full of this type of description then it will be fine.

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    I agree -- a CROWN implies a shape -- not just roundness, not a sphere, but a circle-and-points-upward. (A crown may technically be a specific bit of headgear with padding and crosses and not just jewels, but my brain goes to the BurgerKing simple crown shape). So a CROWN of fire makes me thing of the upward reaching, while a circle feels constrained. That may just be my own reading. – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Feb 27 at 14:25
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    I have to disagree --and downvote. This IS bad style, and for the reasons that the OP points out. It's a perfectly OK image, but it doesn't do any work, and as Amadeus pointed out, it actually works against the reader's comprehension. – Chris Sunami Feb 27 at 16:20
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It's an "Analogy"

Similes and metaphors are types of analogy. It's still a metaphor because of the sentence structure (it's not a simile).

When the comparison is really extreme it's called an analogy. The brain has to "reach out" to synaptic connections find the cross-reference how these things are alike, and eventually offers up shapes and colors, like your fire-crown.

You have an instinct that is telling you these words are associated.

It's a good instinct. Keep listening!

It is not "empty", it is loaded with vivid imagery, but also other (surreptitious?) cross-referenced associations like concentration of power, danger, and eminent domain. My brain was delighted. Thank you!

Compare to this example from the analogy link:

Night Clouds (By Amy Lowell)
The white mares of the moon rush along the sky
Beating their golden hoofs upon the glass Heavens.

Which plays with associative imagery and motion, but makes your head hurt if you try to picture it too literally (horses, upside-down, tapping on a class ceiling with their feet).

1

You are right to be wary. An empty metaphor is a missed opportunity, and missing your opportunities is bad style. Please note that this doesn't mean this is a "bad" metaphor. It means that it's a metaphor that isn't (currently) working. In the right context, it could be a great metaphor. In fact, it might be leading you in a productive direction, one you just need to expand upon.

I torch the forests with a sword of flame, and top the trees with a crown of fire.

Now this metaphor is doing work. It's telling you things about the narrator (the evil king you suggested). Here's a different example:

The regal forests were robed in green, but crowned with fire.

In this case, it's the forest itself that's personified as royal. These usages are easy to understand, because there's some context letting you know what connotations of crown are important. In your original example, the reader has to work hard to guess what you mean. A crown is a circle, it has jagged points, it goes on the top or the head, it signifies a monarch. So which of those is applicable here? If you're just going with the simple, geometric answer, you're right, you're not gaining anything over the more direct "circle." In fact, you've made your job harder because crowns don't expand, and a circle of fire does.

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