The Writer’s Laboratory #2: Why Metaphors are Important

The Writer’s Laboratory #2: Why Metaphors are Important

The metaphor is one of the most powerful tools in the artist’s toolbox. This is the case regardless of whether you are writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or a blog (Notice I couldn’t even get through the first sentence of this post without using one!). Writers love metaphors (and their like-minded cousin, the simile) because they add texture and beauty to an otherwise dry description. (Note that for ease of explication, I will use the term “metaphor” for the rest of this post to refer to both metaphors and similes).

Now, most writers know that metaphors are important. But what is less known is (1) why metaphors are so powerful and (2) what makes a good (or bad) metaphor. Lucky for us, psychological research on metaphors has exploded within the last decade to help us address these points.

So let’s start with the first question: Why are metaphors so powerful? The answer is that metaphors are not just a literary technique; they are a very potent psychological technique.

In their simplest form, metaphors compare two concepts that at first seem unrelated:

All the world’s a stage

Love is a battlefield

Life is like a box of chocolates

              But look closer and you’ll see that each of these takes an abstract, hard to understand idea (the world, love, life) and compares it to a simple, concrete, well-understood idea (the stage, a battlefield, a box of candy). Now not all metaphors do this (e.g., “The basement was a dark cave” simply combines two concrete concepts). But the best ones connect something that is less understood with something that is more understood. As a result, good metaphors help the reader understand something they otherwise might have not.

In On Writing, master storyteller Stephen King notes this ability of metaphors to improve comprehension when he says that they enable people to “see an old thing in a new and vivid way.” For this reason, he says that metaphors are like a kind of miracle that occurs between writer and reader. I tend to agree.

Metaphors are also important because they help writers abide by the all-important “show, don’t tell” rule. For example, in the book Misery, Stephen King’s main character Paul has been rescued after a car accident by a crazy woman named Annie. At one point, she leaves Paul for two days without water, food, or most importantly, pain pills for his broken legs. In this scene, Paul is simultaneously wrestling with crippling pain, thirst and hunger. To communicated this, King uses the metaphor of a horse race, with the horse Pain, Thirst, and Hunger all jockeying for first place. So rather than tell us outright what Paul is going through, King uses a metaphor to show us.

But metaphors go beyond just comprehension and demonstration, they actually change the way we think of a concept on an unconscious level. To demonstrate this, consider a study conducted by Thibodeau and Boroditsky in 2011. In it, half of the participants read about a crime-ridden city where the criminal element was described as a beast preying upon innocent citizens (animal metaphor). A separate group read essentially the same description of the city, only it described the criminal element as a disease that plagued the town (disease metaphor). Later, when asked how to solve the crime issue, those who read the animal metaphor suggested control strategies (increasing police presence, imposing stricter penalties). Those who read the disease metaphor instead suggested diagnostic/treatment strategies (seeking out the primary cause of the crime wave, bolstering the economy).

This study shows that by changing the metaphor actually changed the way readers thought about the crime issue. If it was a beast, it needed to be controlled. If it was a disease, it needed to be treated. Thus, writers can use metaphors to strategically control their readers’ perceptions.

Okay, so you know metaphors are important and hopefully you now have a better understanding of why that is the case. But not all metaphors are equally powerful. We can all think of good metaphors that seemed to soar when we read them. Others hit the ground with a thud.

When it comes to designing metaphors, there is an infinite amount of things you can compare your concept to. So how do you make sure your metaphor is a good one?

In my opinion, the best way to craft a metaphor is to start with your target concept (e.g., sleep) and identify the quality you want to highlight (e.g., sleep can be heavy, peaceful or restless, you can slide into it or collapse). Once you’ve landed on your quality (e.g., slide into), then generate other things that also share this quality (e.g., a baseball player sliding into home plate, a pat of butter sliding down a hot griddle, a sled sliding down an icy hill, a weary body sliding into a warm bath).

Chances are you will come up with more than one comparison, which is fine. So how do you know which one is the best? Follow my five STORI rules below for crafting the best metaphors:

1. Simple. If it takes a long time to explain the connection between two concepts, then you probably need to pick another comparison. Metaphors are designed to make things clearer, not muddy things up even more than before. Along those same lines, don’t mix metaphors. Once you start a metaphor, stick with it. Don’t change it up half-way in (e.g., he was skating on thin ice and finally decided to bite the bullet).

2. Thematic. Metaphors work better when the comparisons selected are consistent with the voice, location, time or theme of your story. For example, a chef falling in love might reflect on his “desire to devour her every word” or reflect that “she added seasoning to his otherwise bland life.” Instead, a tailor might describe the same experience as “fitting like a hand inside a glove” or that “she mended the torn seams of his heart.” And a horticulturist might see their “blossoming relationship” as “a plant that needs to be watered and nurtured.” The point is, you should select metaphors that reinforce other elements of your story.

3. Original. No one wants to read a metaphor they’ve come across a hundred times before, so avoid overused or clichéd comparisons. Stephen King provides these examples: ran like a madman, pretty as a summer day, fought like a tiger. Here are more: When it rains it pours, dressed to kill, at the speed of light, cute as a kitten, and so on. And I’m sure you can think of many other examples.

4. Relevant. When using a metaphor, the writer is agreeing to an implicit promise to the reader that the two concepts are in some way connected. The connection doesn’t have to be immediately obvious—the best ones aren’t. But it should feel like a lightbulb going off in readers’ minds. Suddenly they see the connection where they didn’t before. For instance, Stephen King provides this example of a poorly written metaphor: “He sat stolidly beside the corpse, waiting for the medical examiner as patiently as a man waiting for a turkey sandwich.” The reason this metaphor flops is because there is no seeable connection between waiting for an examiner and waiting for a sandwich.

5. Important. Strunk and White say that “similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. Readers need time to catch their breath.” Not everything in your writing needs a comparison. So be strategic about your use of metaphor. Only use it when you want to emphasize a concept or ignite a feeling that is important and central to your story. After all, as Freud reportedly said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

3 thoughts on “The Writer’s Laboratory #2: Why Metaphors are Important

  1. Dear Melissa, thank you for your ideas in the article “Why Metaphors are important (as applied to the art of writing. I would like to present some ideas regarding the value of metaphors in professional psychological communications:
    “The use of metaphors in interpersonal communication is of value as it contributes to
    congruence regarding a point of discussion between a sender (communicator) and a
    receiver. The use of metaphors is of special importance in the psychological
    The individual human experience is never simplistic. The content of the individual’s
    subjective experience is never simplistic. The content of the individual’s subjective
    experience is normally conveyed as an interwoven entity of, especially affective and
    cognitive elements against the temporal background during which they took place.
    The exchange of information between individuals is seldom formally structured or
    prearranged. This is not natural, as communication normally rather assumes the form
    of a stream of consciousness during which the sender may highlight, emphasize, or
    elaborate on, for instance, specific impressions, feelings, or perceptions.
    This gives human communication it’s rich and exceptional character in so far as each
    message is always individualistic and seldom mechanical or repetitive.
    The psychologist’s aim is very often to obtain a holistic picture of the patient’s
    situation. The psychologist may analyze categorize, or synthesize the content of the
    conversation as a whole or in part. This may help to form an image or images of a
    more mutually comprehensible nature which ideally, may be easily understood by
    even a stranger to the situation. Once such an image or images is reflected and
    accepted by the patient, it becomes therapeutically significant.
    The therapeutic value of metaphors in the psychological interview reaches across a
    wide horizon and may be of particular value to the patient as:
    It creates a more or less permanent, uncomplicated cognitive picture of the individual’s
    situation. Because the image is uncomplicated, it can be easily remembered and used as
    a vantage point or frame of reference whenever necessary. The less complicated a
    metaphor, the more readily it can contribute to an understanding of the essentiality of
    a given situation. An understanding of the essentiality of a system, situation, or thing
    , in turn, makes it much easier to:
    -Analyze the functioning of a similar, more complicated system or situation which the
    patient may experience at a later stage.
    -Solve a problem of a system or situation in which the patient may at some time find
    himself/herself in a different situation.
    The above can be illustrated by the functioning of a simple electric circuit.
    Should one connect the positive pole of a battery to a wire and run it through a
    switch (a mechanism which breaks or connects a current), run it from there to

    one contact of a light bulb and from the other contact of the light bulb, connect a
    wire to the negative pole of the battery, you have a simple electric circuit. Should
    you switch on the switch, it allows energy to flow from the battery, through the
    light bulb (which will light up), back to the battery. Should you switch off the
    switch, you break the flow of energy to the light bulb causing it to stop glowing.
    An understanding of a simple circuit such as this could help one understand and
    analyze even more complicated similar electrical circuits as well as form theories
    about possible problems. This would be due to the fact that one has a fundamental
    idea of how electricity flows and how it can be controlled.
    An individual can recall and “use” an image (metaphor) whenever he or she may be
    flooded by the cognitive or affective material of a specific situation. It enables the
    individual to focus on the core principle of such a situation. This, in turn, could
    provide a simple frame of reference through which the greater situation could be
    viewed, analyzed, or manipulated at will. Different facets of the situation could also be
    scrutinized which may lead to quicker and easier problem solving as well as more
    effective goal-directed behavior.
    -Metaphors thus provide the individual with a certain amount of control which may
    lead to a decrease in anxiety and may increase or strengthen one’s self-confidence.
    -Metaphors may also be utilized as a form of reality testing. The individual who is
    overwhelmed by or engulfed in a sudden flow of problems could be reminded of the
    importance of having a main goal in life which could be illustrated by the following:
    A person traveling in a strange city identifies a very high radio transmission
    tower as a beacon. Although the person may take the wrong turn offs at times or be
    forced by traffic into the opposite direction of the planned destination, the tower
    could constantly be kept in view (also with the aid of the rearview mirror) and
    so serve to maintain the right direction and enable the traveler to reach the
    -Some metaphors can contribute to objectivity. They often help to move confusing
    mythological or emotional material from the conscious and bring about a cognitive
    conception by way of which a situation or system may be more realistically and
    accurately evaluated.
    -Metaphors can counteract affective or cognitive isolation. The individual’s dilemma
    can be and easily understood and shared by a second person. This may help lighten
    the person’s psychological burden and enable the individual to adapt with less
    subjective stress or anxiety.
    -Metaphors can serve as universally understandable “proof” of an individual’s
    experience of suffering. Metaphors can be understood and appreciated by most people.
    This increases its value as a therapeutic device. The actual recording of an
    individual’s situational metaphor may for instance, further add to its therapeutic
    value. In turn, the conveyance of a patient’s situational metaphor to a significant other
    may also enhance its therapeutic value.

    -Metaphors can assist in the objectification of a problem in the sense that it (the
    problem) can be externalized and therefore be turned into a psychologically more
    manageable entity.
    -Metaphors can facilitate the development of different perspectives on a specific
    issue. This is partially brought about by the holistic picture which emanates from most
    metaphors. The subjective distance they provide makes it possible to identify aspects
    in a given situation that otherwise may not have been clearly distinguishable. This
    makes it possible for the individual to gain a better understanding of a problem or
    situation and cope with it.
    This function or characteristic can be compared to that of a weather satellite
    transmission – people in a certain geographic area may see only an overcast sky
    on looking up and not being at all aware of an approaching cyclone. Should they be
    able to see a more holistic image such as presented on television weather reports, it
    would enable them to take shelter and prepare for its effects.
    -Metaphors can aid in the creation and maintenance of certain values and moral
    principles which are strong motivators of human behavior.
    Metaphors and theories on some situations, problems, or concepts which the practicing
    psychologist may encounter in the course of his work, are discussed in part two.
    These are, however, not presented as theories or substitutes for theories – they are
    simply rough sketches which may render the specific concepts more universally
    understandable.”Metaphors for some Psychological Mommsen, D.Phil.(Psychology)M.A. Clinical Psychology.

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