Not long ago, somebody read a paragraph aloud to me and told me that it was really good. I must have looked confused, because the reader-aloud then said: “Don’t you recognize that? It’s the opening of Bloody Waters!”
It wasn’t that I didn’t recognize my own work, it’s just that something else was going through my head, hearing those words spoken to me by someone else:
“I think that metaphor is broken.”
After some reflection, I decided that it wasn’t really broken, but it wasn’t functioning properly, either. Metaphors can be like that, and I am, after all, an engineer. I fixed it for the print edition.
I believe that bad writing generally equates to bad metaphors or similes. Not syntactically-incompetent writing, mind you — some of the worst bad writers are extremely competent, imaginative, clever and witty. Some of the worst offenders are loved and lauded. I suppose that should indicate to you that this post is my opinion only. That, of course, is why you are reading this screed on jasonfranks.com, rather than graven on tablets of stone.
The Art and Craft of Metaphor
I don’t know exactly where we are taught this, but a lot of writers think crafting metaphors is the best way to prove that they are serious and talented artists. As a result, our work is riddled with similes comparing objects, feelings and actions to things that they may or may not actually resemble.
A simile, as we all know, is a metaphor in which we overtly compare two different things, usually by employing the word ‘like’. In high school, I was taught that a metaphor is a simile in which we eschew this direct comparison and simply say that an object is something that it is not, in order to convey that likeness.
Simile: “The yacht was like a banana”.
Metaphor: “The yacht was a banana”.
If the reader is a literal-minded curmudgeon, like me, this latter phrasing will usually provoke a grumbling response like “No, it wasn’t,” rather than the vision-trance of banana-yachts that The Artiste was hoping for. This is a bad metaphor, even if the yacht in question is painted yellow and hanging from a tree.
Metaphors are much more than literally phrased similes. They are a pervasive and subtle feature of every type of writing.
A cliche is an over-used metaphors. Not only that: cliches tend to be really good metaphors. That’s how they have come to be so widely used. As much as we dislike them, cliches quickly become invisible to us and I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s been embarrassed when somebody points one out in my work.
Similes can allow you to shortcut a description of a complex process by evoking a a more-readily grasped sequence. They can quickly add power or emotion to an otherwise prosaic sight or action. But I find them to be the most frequent source of purple in my prose and I will usually strive to eliminate them unless they make the prose more efficient or there is a very specific effect I am looking for.
Some of my favourite writers employ similes heavily. The thrill of reading Joe R. Lansdale’s work is that it’s so dark and yet so funny, and this latter quality is largely due to his unique facility for similes.
The simile is as valid a tool as any other–but now I look at the way that I employ them very carefully. I know Joe Lansdale does the same.
A Good Metaphor is Poison
A good metaphors is subtle. It’s a poison that the reader won’t even taste before it takes effect. A single drop–often a well-chosen verb– is often all that you need to convey the likeness
“The manuscript was poisoned with bad similes.”
I think that’s a good, evocative metaphor that will spice up your prose without drawing any particular attention to it. Certainly it’s better than screaming “Metaphoooor!” as you run up behind the reader and then smash them over the head with your genius.
The subtlest poisons rely on cumulative dosage, in the same way that a good punchline or a plot twist needs to be prepared by an accretion of clues. Successful metaphors need to be seeded through stories. They need to be set up. They need to be planned. I’m not saying that every piece has to be structured around a metaphor; I’m just saying that we think of metaphors a bit more broadly than we are taught in high school.
There is a lot of overlap between the concepts of metaphor, theme, and allegory. It’s the author’s job to determine where (if anywhere) in that overlap a particular story should be situated.
Good Metaphors Are Also Bad
So there I am. I’ve crafted an elaborate an intricate metaphor; an evanescent chandelier that hangs luminous from a paragraph of prose, drawing the eyes of all who enter it to the dazzling brilliance of Jason, The Writer, a master of his craft…
Even a well constructed metaphor can qualify as bad writing, especially if its true purpose is to show off the writer’s chops. Metaphors should serve the story. Stories that exist only to serve up metaphors are generally not stories I want to read. Nobody buys books because they want to marvel at the writer’s capacity for metaphorical gymnastics. I like stories that have something to say besides “Look at me–writing!”
But that’s the beauty of the drafting process. That’s where I cull the metaphors and hide the bodies where neither critics nor judgmental bloggers will ever see them.
So that’s my approach, which of course changes all the time. I try to avoid big obvious metaphors. I try not to showboat. I like simple, subtle metaphors and, as always, “if in doubt, cut it out.” I cut a lot. I like metaphors that are set up slowly through a story like a punchline or a plot twist, but this requires careful planning and execution to ensure that it does not interfere with the clarity of the storytelling.
But of course, sometimes you just have to go for the metaphor. To which I can only say: do it.
This blog post is a walrus.