I have an odd relationship with metaphors. If someone asks me to come up with one on the spot, my mind freezes, becomes unresponsive. I see an endlessly flipping sand timer, and while I wait for my stupid fat head to reboot, I’m standing there open-mouthed with a text cursor blinking endlessly behind my eyes.
But then, if I’m actually trying to explain something – like my mind going blank – it’s pretty easy to convey that particular feeling with metaphor, in this case using the frustration we all encounter with an ageing PC.
Abstract thoughts can be expressed much more clearly with a metaphor, that’s why we use them. But overuse can be tedious – you don’t have to describe every thought, action and scene in some verbose simile. In fact you positively shouldn’t.
Really tight writing uses narrator-appropriate metaphors. Similarly, bad writing spoils the experience with narrator-inappropriate metaphors.
What do I mean by that?
For an example of how it should be done, read Jim Crace’s Harvest. The narrator is a farmhand, albeit a moderately educated one, and his voice never deviates from that background. His metaphors are rich with agricultural references, or seasonal changes, or village life. These are the things the narrator can relate to, which is why the narrator chooses to describe other events in similar terms.
Bad writing emerges when the metaphors are historically inappropriate, or culturally inappropriate.
That’s not to confuse it with inaccuracy. My hastily written example in the title above – Jesus with a ukulele – is historically inaccurate, because the ukulele wasn’t invented until the 19th century. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make that simile – here in the 21st century, I know about ukuleles and I know about Jesus, so I might easily imagine the King of the Jews playing When I’m Cleaning Windows.
However, if my character lives pre-19th century, then it becomes historically inappropriate. The character doesn’t know about ukuleles. If my character is Japanese, perhaps they don’t know about Jesus – that would be culturally inappropriate.
Wheat from the chaff
Let’s take Crace’s narrator as an example: Walter Thirsk lives on a farm, in what appears to be the 19th century, with the industrial revolution starting to make a mark on the countryside.
Let’s say the villagers are rioting, and there’s people shouting and waving pitchforks and baying for blood. If Thirsk is describing these events, he would not, for instance, liken it to the maddening clamour of the stock exchange floor – neither has it been invented yet, nor would Thirsk have witnessed it if it had.
Nor would he say “the townsfolk were like angry proles on Black Friday, clambering over each other, as though to purchase dishonestly discounted electrical goods”. He just wouldn’t do it, because he is ignorant of 21st-century progress.
Maybe he’d liken it to cattle being startled and stampeding through a narrow gate, getting squashed together and trampling their kin. Or like a particularly raucous evening’s mead-drinking at the county fare. You know what I’m saying?
Now, these examples relate to a ruminative narrator, one who describes events in first person. So, perhaps it seems obvious he wouldn’t use those terms. You wouldn’t put those thoughts in his head in the same way you wouldn’t force 21st-century slang into his dialogue.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be wary of it if you don’t have a first-person narrator. It also jars if you are writing from third person, depending on your genre and setting.
A bone to pick
I wrote a review of Stephen King’s short story collection Skeleton Crew in July. Far be it from me to criticise such a successful writer, but I noticed a number of times King used metaphors that conflicted with the scene in which they were relayed.
For example, in the sci-fi space exploration story ‘Beach World’, a giant alien creature with tentacles attacks a man trying to escape back to his ship. King writes:
Their tentacles curled around the tread sprockets as they picked him up – he looked ridiculously like a faculty member about to be tossed in a blanket by a bunch of roughhousing fraternity boys.
For me, referring to fraternity groups and boisterous college campuses when a space creature is engulfing the crew of a ship on a foreign world is just a bit lazy. It brings me out of the world, and reminds me of American Pie, when my head is in Prometheus mode.
When it comes to writing fantasy or science fiction, matephors become an absolute minefield. If you’re writing about a foreign world, totally separate from Earth, whose inhabitants aren’t from Earth, have never been, nor have even heard of it, you can’t describe events or objects with terra-ble similes (apologies).
Or, you can, but it’s lackadaisical, and momentarily removes the reader from the world you’ve constructed.
Yes, our readers are from this world – here, now, on Earth – so similes they can relate to are important. But my narrators – my characters – can’t make those associations, so they have to be omitted, plain and simple. If you’re writing in Deep POV (which is a technical term for “well”), your characters are your voice, whether you’re in third person or not.
Yes, it makes it very difficult to convey images, because you can’t take that shortcut of relation.
However, invented metaphors, if evocative enough, can be just as relatable as those we recognise from our experiences on Earth. And they can provide a rich flavour to your world building and characterisation.
A galaxy far, far away
Let’s take Star Wars as an example. In The Empire Strikes Back, Han visits a recuperating Luke in the infirmary and says, “You look strong enough to pull the ears off a gundark.” We don’t know what a “gundark” is, but we can assume from his tone that it’s big and strong; it is Han’s own brand of bedside manner. Additionally, amid the references to strange aliens, we get characterisation – Han relates well-being with physical strength.
Metaphors in Star Wars are most common in the insults thrown around: Leia calls Chewie a “walking carpet”; Han calls Jabba a “slimy piece of worm-ridden filth”; and, most famously, Leia calls Han a “stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder!”
We don’t know what a “nerf herder” is, but we can guess it’s an unglamorous shepherd-like job. This has the added bonus of revealing Leia’s privileged background, raised by nobility far apart from farming and agriculture. It also imparts the notion of farming still being “a thing” in the galaxy (although we know that from Luke’s work on Tatooine).
You see? Snippets of information from invented metaphors. Easy!
Noticed some odd ones in the books you’re reading? Let me know in the comments.