How can we distinguish good metaphors from bad ones? I feel like a lot of figurative languages can border nonsense, but how much nonsense is too much nonsense? Are there rules or standards that writers or some writers use.

For example, consider the following sentences:

I am dancing in your heart.

I am seeing bright stars in your heart.

The night sky in your heart is filled with my stars.

All these sentences are weird and sound ungrammatical, but figurative languages allow us to write illogical sentences. What do you think?

  • 4
    One can write a book on good and bad metaphors. Basically, metaphor should invoke close and instinctively understood likeliness between the subjects. A riddle (even a good one), which requires thinking to understand its meaning, is not a metaphor.
    – Alexander
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 20:35
  • While it's arguable what's an okay metaphor and what's a great metaphor, I think we should be capable of giving some tips on how to avoid bad metaphors.
    – SF.
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 10:30

6 Answers 6


It all depends on the skill of the writer. A badly made metaphor can easily destroy the mood or take the reader from the important details. In fact, writing non-sense without destroying the pace of the reader is a special art. There are popular fantasy Chinese novels that have pages of nonsense with less than twenty percent useful plot. Check this site (English translations).

So, as long as you can keep the reader glued to the page, anything goes. As for whether it's a good metaphor or bad one, we can only tell after reading.


Metaphors are complicated.

Metaphors are the DNA Primers which bind to fragments of memory and draw the full memory to our attention.

Was that last sentence a metaphor? I would say yes because it likens a metaphor to a constructed short sequence of DNA, and extended that to the ability of that DNA to search through the detritus in a call and bind with a longer sequence, all being equivalent to a metaphor pulling forth a larger, fully formed memory.

For some people, it would be obvious what I said. For others, it would be meaningless. And, for another, more learned group, I would be informed that that isn't exactly how either DNA primers nor human memory actually works.

"Thoughts of you open my heart to the heavens, which fills with a billion brilliant points of beauty that bring me to the edge of awe."


"Good" and "Bad" are subjective terms. It depends on who your audience is. Maybe compare things that are common and that everyone understands, so the chance of confusion is lowered. But as xax answered, as long as it is intriguing, you can probably slide in what you want.

If you're really unclear if something makes sense, show the specific line to your friends (kind of like what you're doing here, but with people more like who you want to be reading your material).

Nice metaphors


A big deal with those sorts of metaphors is they tend to be sappy, and sound kind of corny. The use of your saying or metaphor, is also important. If it's quoting some already-created saying, from a literary piece or a novel, then it really doesn't matter nearly as much what it says. or if you're attempting to have a character who writes, or speaks in super cheesy sentences, for example, that works as well.

A huge thing about metaphors, is that they work, they use specific, sometimes literal terms, to describe feelings. If you write a metaphor, but it has no emotion or purpose, it's going to sound dumb, honestly.

It helps to think of related terms (even sorts of play-on-words if you can tackle that challenge!) and giving it a sense of reality, and having it actually relate-able and understandable.

The saying "I'm dancing in your heart" doesn't work as well, because, What is dancing? so if dancing has a meaning, and the person "I" is dancing in someone else's (your) heart, that would be for the other person to decide. It would make more sense to say "You are dancing in my heart" because it is talking about the other person, to whom they obviously have affection. There's that, while the better one is "The night sky in your heart is filled with my stars". Because it is using literal terms, in relation to one another: Stars are in the night sky. The night sky is in someone else's heart. While this also pertains to another person, if "MY" stars are in someone else's heart, unless "I" am sure the other person ("You") is in love with "Me" I can not be sure to decide that.

Por Ejemplio: A better option may be "The night sky in your heart has filled me with stars". This may make more sense, because metaphors are important to who they are pertaining to.

Also think: What is the purpose? What does this metaphor mean? What is the night sky in your heart? Is it love, sorrow? WHAT. DOES. IT. MEAN. That is the most important with metaphors.

Though, otherwise, it's really not a big deal. just be careful, and re-read it and it's context. Also, ask another person to review for you, ask them to be honest, because different perspectives see things in different ways.

I read a book once, which has a character who uses a metaphor that basically says: "all of life is just a giant swirling toilet with a few spots of semi-dry to land on." This sounds really, really dumb just hearing it, but what's the context? What does it mean to the person or character?

What does it mean. That's what differentiates a good metaphor from a bad metaphor. ...That and how stubborn the person reading it is.


I often find the better metaphors are ones that convey deep emotion. Ones felt from the heart (I know how cheesy that sounds, but it is true). For example; "It was sweet, little cottage nestled between the hills. It was like a water color painting, perfect, yet still so forlorn. It was there, but it had no life. Ever since mum died, things have never been the same." I hope that answers your question. Also, can no one please steal that metaphor, I have to use it for my book.

  • There's no metaphor in your example. The sentence "It was like a water color painting" is a simile. For the difference between a simile and a metaphor, see here. :-) Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 4:14

The metaphor has two basic purposes: convey the meaning of the 'plain' expression you replace, and enhance it, adding the emotional associations connected to the expression used instead. And you can basically fail in three ways - at either of these parts, or at their point of connection.

The first failure is a frequent one, where the metaphor is too distant and the reader simply fails to make the connection. The metaphor won't be understood, or will be misread as something else than intended, the original meaning completely lost. Avoiding this is quite difficult as, being the person who thought up the metaphor in the first place, you lack the perspective of reader not knowing the connection a'priori. In this case it's good to ask someone for feedback. "I am seeing bright stars in your heart" - hope? longing? joy? If the association of feelings matches your intent perfectly but you're not sure if the connection is clear, use a simile instead.

The second failure is when you don't notice certain associations. The expression may be corny, or evoke other feelings than desired. "I am dancing in your heart" may signify causing joy, but my first impression was reckless tap-dancing, you trampling that person's heart in your oblivious happiness, causing pain. Too non-specific expression used for the metaphor is bound to cause this kind of problems.

Then there's third, where the wording of the metaphor as standalone is fine, but there exists an unintended, unnoticed straightforward connection between it and the surrounding text, so that reading the metaphor as plain text, not a metaphor, logically connects with the surrounding text leading to a completely unintended, comical or disturbing effect. "Delicious tears" is a clear metaphor for schadenfreude. But "Delicious aching heart" is straightforward cannibalism.

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