Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Building Strong Metaphors

Any lover of lush prose will tell you: There is no more valuable tool in a descriptive writer's box than a well-placed metaphor. Good metaphors are like a book's salt—they can draw out all of the other flavors of the narrative, adding punch and depth in just the right places, turning fairly run-of-the-mill descriptions into things worth pausing over and savoring. (Want proof? I'm still, weeks after reading it, in awe over Julie Berry's fabulous grape-crushing metaphor from the excerpt I quoted in yesterday's post!)

Few things can bring a description to life the way a metaphor can... at least, that is, as long as it's a good one. Weak metaphors, like weak adjectives, serve at best as merely-adequate sentences, the kind of prose a reader skims but doesn't become immersed in. At worst, weak metaphors (also like weak adjectives!) can pull a reader right out of the story. Metaphors that are too out of left field, or that attempt to combine too many different ideas, or that are simply over-used, definitely don't earn you any extra reader investment.

So how do you make sure that you're writing the good kind of metaphors, and not the bad? Here are my own personal rules for writing metaphors (of which I'm quite fond—as you've probably noticed from the fact that I've used several in this post already!):

Rule #1: The first idea is almost never the best one.

This applies to a lot of things in writing, and metaphors are no exception! For me, at least, I've found that when I'm trying to describe something, the first metaphor that I reach for is usually one that's clich├ęd and common. You know what I'm talking about—her eyes were like stars, his jaw was set like stone, it was as soft as a pillow, etc. etc. etc. While these metaphors are a step up from just using a weak adjective like "bright," "hard," or "soft," they're so embedded in our cultural consciousness that they become invisible, entirely lacking the power to make a reader see things with that pop and fizzle you'd like to evoke.

Both while drafting and in revision, I try to keep an eye open for these overused metaphors when they pop up. I've been paying attention to them for long enough now that I often catch them as I'm drafting, but inevitably a few sneak through to be caught later—and that's okay. This kind of thinking takes practice, and it's 100% all right if your descriptions begin fairly simple and unevocative and build over time during revisions.

When I do find that I'm about to use, or have already used, a weak metaphor, I pause for a bit of brainstorming. This is actually a game I love to play while I'm falling asleep at night: I pick an image from my WIP that I know I'll be describing the next day, and then I try to think of as many metaphors as I can to describe it until I hit on one that feels right! I do something similar when I'm mid-writing-session.

In my just-completed WIP, for instance, I knew that I'd need to describe early on one of the characters, an elderly homeless man. Initially, in thinking about the sorts of metaphors I'd use to show what he looked like, I hit on two: his skin like paper, and his bones thin and birdlike. Both of those were unsatisfying, though, because both of them are metaphors that are used relatively often to describe people who are old with weathered skin. So instead, I spent one of those before-sleep brainstorming sessions trying to come up with other things that worked well. What I ended up with was this:

He was old, with a mostly-grey beard and skin like the bark on the birch tree by my apartment, as thin and saggy as if it had seen a hundred years of sun and wind. 
It's still a first draft, and it's entirely possible that in the future I may punch that metaphor up further or take it out entirely. But for right now, it's a much better option than paper-thin skin or birdlike bones!

Rule #2: The best metaphors fit well with the overall story and its setting.

In high school, I spent a semester building my own creative writing course (the perks of being a homeschooler!) that was comprised largely of reading and underlining my favorite books to try to figure out what made them tick, and writing lots of short stories to use the tools I'd learned. This is an approach I both recommend and don't recommend—had I been a little less clueless I would've thrown some good craft books in there, too, but at the time I was kind of snobby about craft books—but that's beside the point. One of the big epiphanies from that class was the day that I was reading Shannon Hales' THE GOOSE GIRL and realized, with a minor thunderclap, how much power Hale's metaphors had because they were tied in so well to her story and its setting. For a character who could speak the language of birds, Hale used bird metaphors. For scenes that took place in a stable, she used stable metaphors.

Often, the most powerful metaphors are ones that evoke and strengthen an aspect of the story itself—the setting, a specific relationship, a character's feelings. Early in THE GOOSE GIRL, for instance, Hale describes her main character, Ani, coming into her horse's stable like this:

Ani entered the first stable. The familiar smells of warm bodies and clean hay greeted her like a friendly touch.
At this point in the book, Ani is a princess, the daughter of a permanently-disapproving mother; Ani feels caged and awkward in her life, unable to ever do anything that makes others proud of her. Her one refuge, which she mostly isn't allowed, is her connection to animals, and the metaphor that Hale chooses to describe the smells of the stable—like a friendly touch—immediately brings home to us just how much of a relief it is for Ani to be away from the perpetual stress of the palace and into the one place she feels peace and friendliness.

This rule isn't hard and fast, of course; there will definitely be times when the metaphor best-suited to a specific description doesn't have much, or anything at all, to do with your overall story. (Birch trees, for instance, aren't ever mentioned by name again in my WIP that I know of, though there are scenes in a forest.) But it's often worth pondering, as you're sitting down to describe something, whether or not your choice of metaphor can tie in to a larger theme.

Rule #3: Good metaphors are unique without being strange.

Every now and then if I'm having a hard time finding a unique way to describe something, I'll say something about it to my husband (my best brainstorming buddy). Inevitably, he comes up with something super whacky, like "The food was so bad I felt like a dinosaur choking on a planet", which is the real true example he just spouted off when I told him to give me a weird metaphor. And, while that sort of over-the-top silly description can be perfect for a madcap adventure or a zany, voicey satire (which goes right back to rule #2!), usually this isn't the kind of metaphor that's going to work best for most books.

The strongest metaphors manage to strike a balance: They're unique, but they don't cross the line into strange. You want something that is fresh and new enough to make your reader pause, but not so far out of left field that she's left scratching her head about it. In general, you want to make sure that your metaphors match your story's tone—you wouldn't, for example, have a bunch of violence-centric metaphors in a quiet MG, unless violence was important to and consistent with your story's plot and tone. Metaphors should build and enrich your writer's voice throughout the book, not detract or distract from it.

Unofficial Rule #4: It's okay if it takes time.

For me, at least, learning to write with metaphors this way has been a long work-in-progress, a process of years of teaching my brain to recognize when my description is weak and figure out how to brainstorm my way into a solution. If you're feeling overwhelmed at this point in our Descriptive Writing 101 series, that's okay. Good descriptive writing takes time—time to absorb and practice techniques from book-to-book, and time to add layers and depth to your description from draft to draft.

On that note, who's up for a challenge? If you'd like to practice the techniques I talked about in this post, here's your assignment: do a little metaphor brainstorming of your own! Think of a character, setting, or object that you'd like to describe, and then make a list of as many potential metaphors for that thing as you can. Look at your list to see if any of them have particular resonance with any of the characters, plotlines, themes, or settings in your story—or if any of them just seem to fit with the thing you're trying to describe, whether or not they echo your overall story. Give yourself permission to take some time and let your brain marinate over the assignment a little bit. There's no rush!

Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description


  1. Yes! Rule #1 is so important and so overlooked!! Which makes Rule #4 so important. :)

    1. Yes! Agreed! And thanks for reading (and sharing). :)