Metaphors. Similes. Figurative language.
They’re the sparkling gold accents on a canvas painted with prose. They’re the window to our narrators’ worldview. They’re the soaring notes in a beautiful symphony. A metaphor or image can make a writer sound observant, witty and sophisticated.
They can also make you sound really silly.
Here are six varieties of metaphoric blunder that are writing’s equivalent to wearing your shirt back to front.
6. The Groaner
The Groaner is a cliched, sappy or heavy-handed analogy. Often used by novice storytellers trying to look clever, it has the opposite effect, as it clearly demonstrates their inexperience. The reader can see the Groaner coming from the first word of its setup, and is groaning before they finish the sentence. From me, they usually elicit a long raspberry.
If you suspect a Groaner in your own writing, imagine your bluntest friend reading it aloud. Really, though, the only way to overcome this blunder is to read more widely, to gain a more thorough understanding of cliche and contrivance.
- A character dreams in rich poetic allusions, instead of random nonsense like the rest of us.
- A character has something happen to them that creates a literal version of a common idiom, and the author isn’t being ironic. ‘When my daughter died, I lost hope. Because that was her name.’
- A dying character poses like Jesus.
5. Stealing the Show
This is a metaphor or simile so bizarre, esoteric or long-winded that it detracts from the thing being described. No matter how apt, the thing you’re describing should be foremost in the reader’s mind, not the image you’re using to describe it. Particularly ruinous to your reader’s immersion is a variant I call The Kazoo at the Funeral, when the image doesn’t suit the gravity of the character’s situation.
Comedy is probably the only exception, wherein the conspicuousness of the metaphor is part of the joke. Think Douglas Adams’ derailed analogies, wherein a character might begin by opining that life is like a grapefruit, only to be distracted by the grapefruit and forget that you cannot have half of life for breakfast.
- Bizarre: ‘The muffins steamed gently, like fresh horse manure on a winter’s morning.’ ‘Her breasts hung like pomegranates.’ These are ineffective because the way we feel about the things being described are wildly different from the simile. Often, they can make the reader wonder what is wrong with the writer: ‘why did her mind go to horse poo when she thought of muffins? Does she… does she eat horse poo?’
- Esoteric: ‘Janine was as tragically beautiful as Ravioli’s Symphony in E Minor.’ Simply put, the reader isn’t likely to be familiar with such a reference. (And a person isn’t beautiful in the same way as a piece of music, anyway.)
- Kazoo at the Funeral: ‘My brother’s blood sprayed across the wall as if shot from a Super-Soaker.’ ‘I felt my soul begin to peel from my body, like a particularly sticky Band-Aid.‘ <– This one I discovered in an actual novel! It utterly ruined the sense of mortal peril the scene was supposed to convey, because a sticky Band-Aid is such a trivial concern. The author might have done better comparing the peeling soul to skin being ripped off.
- Long-winded: ‘Mary’s honeyeater heart flitted from one paramour to the next, never dipping in the same flower twice but fluttering carefree through life’s garden of pleasures, meeting and parting with beautiful people in fleeting moments of delicious obsession.’ Get to the point.
4. Malaphors (aka, Rocket Surgery)
Oh boy. I love this one.
You might have heard of malapropisms – similar-sounding words being confused, as in Tony Abbott’s unforgettable ‘suppository of all wisdom’. (It’s ‘repository’ – ‘storage receptacle/building’. A ‘suppository’ is a capsule of anal medicine.)
But a malaphor is a whole different kettle of chickens. It’s when somebody gets two common metaphors or idioms mixed up, like I just did in the last sentence. While malaphors would be an excellent tool for creating character through dialogue, when you use them unknowingly, you sound like a duffer. This goes for everybody, not just writers! It’s funny and cute in an informal setting, but in professional correspondence, it could be embarrassing.
- ‘It’s the cream of the cake.‘ Not gonna lie, the cream on a sponge cake is pretty delicious. (That link leads to more great malaphors.)
- ‘We’re practically spoon-feeding these students, but it just goes in one ear and out the other.’ Maybe try putting the spoons in their mouths?
- ‘When evil raises its hand…’ This one makes me imagine a shy little demon at a community meeting: ‘Uh, hi, yes – I’d like to say a few words on behalf of Evil, please?’
Similar, but more frustrating, is the ‘eggcorn’ – a misheard saying (self-demonstratingly named for acorns). The other day, I encountered the phrase ‘step foot in my house’, in a multi-award-winning work of literary fiction. It’s SET foot, not ‘step foot’. This is the result of what linguists call ‘back-formation’. The origin of an idiom is lost to history, and speakers hear what they think makes sense. This is how we arrived at ‘humble pie’, for instance. Deer entrails were known in the Middle Ages as ‘umbles’, which servants would eat while their masters had the best cuts of venison. To eat umble pie was therefore to be lowly, like a servant. When people stopped eating umbles, they kept using the phrase as a metaphor. Eventually, we started saying ‘humble pie’, because ‘umble’ wasn’t in common usage. But back-formation is a tale for another day.
3. Redundant Redundancies (aka, Shaped Like Itself)
The Redundant Repetitive Redundant Tautology is simply when an author compares a thing to itself. Again, this can be effective in comedic situations – Shakespeare has a gag about a crocodile in which he describes the creature as being ‘shaped like itself, and as broad as it is’.
But sometimes, authors let one of these slip in. It looks careless, and can usually be spotted by reading your work aloud.
Examples (both real):
- ‘Homesickness struck her in the stomach like pain.’ Well… wasn’t it pain? What’s wrong with saying her feelings caused her physical pain? What’s that ‘like’ doing there?
- ‘He had straight white teeth, perfect for biting into things.’ This author was trying to evoke the image of a predator, and instead just described the primary function of teeth.
2. The Queen’s Skateboard
Speculative fiction writers, beware. This one can really creep up on you.
The Queen’s Skateboard is when an author uses a metaphor that the character through whose perspective we see the story’s world would not use.
Fictional people should bear some resemblance to real ones. Real people relate new things that they see or experience to things that they already know. What they already know will be determined by the life they’ve lived and the things they enjoy. I might have an education in classical mythology, but if a boisterous seven-year-old or an elderly peasant in one of my stories says, ‘It’s like Sisyphus pushing the boulder uphill’, it’s going to stand out.
Similarly, if we view the story through more than one character, their figurative language should be distinct because their minds will work in different ways. Even if they both belong to a time and place radically different from ours, there should be subtle differences between their analogies.
- ‘Though I was but a simple scullery maid, the young lord sent me poems sweeter than ice cream.’
- ‘Though she was but a simple halfling, the young elf sent her poems sweeter than chocolate’.
- ‘I was only a civi among thousands aboard the space station, but the captain’s poems were sweeter than Froot Loops.’ Beer has been around for thousands of years. It’s probably going to last. Particular varieties of junky cereal? Not so likely.
And while I’m targeting spec-fic storytellers, the number one imagery blunder is…
1. Contextually Contaminated Connotations
A Contextually Contaminated Connotation is when the thing being described is rendered confusing by what is occurring around it.
This made number one because it’s the most subtle, and the most common. Speculative fiction writers are particularly susceptible, because certain phrases that pass under the radar in realistic fiction may not translate so well to a world in which strange things can happen. Most of the time, we can filter out the most likely meaning with little trouble: ‘my heart plummeted’, for instance, probably refers to a feeling of disappointment.
But in a world where magic exists, it’s unwise to use this as a metaphor. It can suggest that the organ itself has wriggled free, jumped ship and tumbled to the floor.
Scour the pages for these. They’re an obvious sign of failing to proof a piece. While they can create a stranger mental image in fanciful genres, no medium or genre is truly immune.
- ‘His eyes fell to the floor.’ (Boing! Boing!) Credit to Vonda M. McIntyre.
- ‘As the poultry farmer appeared at the corner, I saw her duck.’
- ‘The fisherman went to the bank.’
- ‘Jack was a brilliant ruckman, but now he had dropped the ball.’ This would be excusable where the pun was intended, however.
- ‘The image leaped out at me.’ This would pass in realistic fiction, but would be a poor choice for SF, in which magic or technology could bring a picture to life.
What tortured metaphors have you stumbled across? Let me know in the comments!