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When I read books, I marvel at the ease with which the author uses metaphors. I'd like to have this ability. Does one get better at writing good metaphors by reading countless books? Or is there a better way to achieve this? How does one practice to become better?

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You train your active vocabulary* – and your creativity in general – by using it, much like any other faculty or skill.

  • Look up a word and its meaning in a dictionary and find examples for its usage. Make sure you understand the meaning and usage of the word correctly.
  • Practice that word by using it in your speech and writing. Begin by doing writing or speaking exercises the same way you did when learning a foreign language.
  • Once you have acquired a word, keep using it or you will forget it with time.

Mere (passive) reading will only put words in your passive vocabulary. You need to actively use them to make them easily retrievable from your memory. That is why speaking and writing exercises are so essential for language learning.

The same goes for phrases such as figures of speech or common combinations of words. And the same goes with inventing new metaphors and creativity in general: practice it. The internet is full with exercise ideas.


* The active or productive vocabulary are the words an individual can retrieve from their memory and use in their speech and writing. The passive or receptive vocabulary are the words that an individual can recognize and understand when reading a text or hearing them in speech.

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I think you don’t really mean ‘ease,’ since that suggests the author had little to no difficulty working those metaphors into their writing.

What I think you are asking is how to craft better metaphors; ones that improve your prose rather than just increase the word count on the page.

To come up with effective metaphors it might be useful to list the properties of a good metaphors. For me:

  • They are organic. They build on the viewpoint or nature of the character or narrator. And they are built on worldview of the story and don't bring in elements that are alien to the world. E.G. Fritz Lieber used bowling ball metaphors describing severed heads in his Fafhrad and Grey Mouser stories (Sword and Sorcery) even though bowling was never mentioned as a pasttime.

  • They are usually original. Well used metaphors are also called tropes and cliches. Which is not to say they ought not be used. A well known metaphor has the charm of efficiency -- It's raining cats and dogs communicates a that there is a big storm in very few words, and sometimes that is important.

  • Effective metaphors often seem to complement the scene. But sometimes they work in the negative too, putting the moment in stark relief or use contradiction.

Make you own list of what you've observed about metaphors and similes. That can help you find them more often in your daily life, which ought to bleed over into your writing.

I think it is a truism that "Too many metaphors, spoil the soup." Too much of a good thing isn't always an improvement.

Also, when you write your first drafts, don't worry about coming up with great metaphors. Use cliches if they come to mind. They serve as guideposts to your intent - a message in a unobtrusive bottle to your future self of what you were thinking when you wrote it.

When you start revising, on your second and third and fifteen drafts, that is time time to focus on the details of your metaphors. Identifying those you like and those are really working and those that are falling flat. Then, by reading the sentences and paragraphs around the metaphor in question, you can seek inspiration. Is there an image or leitmotif that would lend itself to a terrific metaphor in the moment.

Lastly, reading is important. If you are serious about being a writer, then reading is the most important part of being a writer -- this includes your own works and the work of published and unpublished writers. I am always amazed at what I learn from reading both good and bad writing. The former helps me improve my craft and structure and the latter helps me recognize my own mistakes.

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  • Thank you for your most valuable lesson. I will take it to heart. Apr 16 at 3:55
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The big "problem" with just reading a work of fiction, especially for somebody that loves reading (which is why most aspiring writers want to write), is immersion.

When the writing is good, we quickly get immersed in the story, in the imagery, in our imagination, and almost forget we are reading.

That is the goal of fiction, for an author, cultivating that immersed state of mind so the reader loses themselves in the story, imagining a movie in their head, but supplemented by the emotions and impact on the characters.

Great writers are great at creating immersion, which makes just reading them difficult to learn anything about writing from them.

The way to read great writers in order to learn from them is to avoid this sort of immersion, and read the writing critically and analytically.

Open the book at random, and search for a metaphor. Then analyze it.

Why does it work?

What other metaphors might be used?

Is it a long and drawn out metaphor, covering a paragraph, or a short metaphor in a short sentence? And why? Short has punch, and shock value. Long and drawn out invites contemplative imagery. Why does the author (or character speaking) want that?

What sensory inputs does the metaphor appeal to? (And why did the author choose those particular senses? How do the chosen senses affect the mood of the scene?)

What emotions does the metaphor appeal to?

How would you rate it, on a scale of 1 to 5 stars?

What similar metaphors can you think of, from modern technology, or what would be used in 1950?

If you want to learn about metaphors, you can't just read them. You need to actually study them. And if you like fiction, you have books full of them written by experts.

But you aren't going to learn much just by reading and admiring them.

In fiction, metaphors are a tool the author uses to accomplish an effect on the reader. You must study them and learn the mechanics of how the tool is used, when the tool is used, and what the tool accomplishes.

Stop being a reader, and start being an analyst.

It's like learning car mechanics. You aren't going to learn that by riding in a car. You have a much better chance of learning it by taking a car apart, and figuring out what each part accomplishes.

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    I can see your point. This is valuable information. Thank you. Apr 16 at 3:31

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