Some of us might remember learning about metaphors in our high school English class—unless you had a hard time learning because your classroom was a bit of a zoo or your English teacher was a dragon. You might also dimly remember that a metaphor is actually a much bigger concept than just swapping out one word for another: its power lies in its ability be used to draw comparisons between things, people, ideas, or entire worlds.
Let’s explore what metaphors are, some of the things metaphors can be in the world of a story, how they compare to other literary imagery, and how to use them in your own writing.
What is a metaphor?
A metaphor is a literary device that correlates two seemingly unrelated ideas in order to make the reader see them in a new way.
Metaphorshave been in practice since the dawn of literature; the Greek philosopher Aristotle considered mastery of the metaphor in writing a “sign of genius.”
In its simplest form, a metaphor tells us that two ideas are in essence the same thing: for instance, “love is a battlefield” or “she was a night owl.” A metaphor doesn’t only suggest that these two things have similarities (this would make it a simile, which we’ll look at below), but it equates them directly, visually and emotionally, as one and the same. In this example, calling someone a night owl probably doesn’t mean they’ve taken on the form of an actual bird of prey, complete with feathers and scaly feet and creepily revolving head—it means that they’re more comfortable in nighttime environments. It’s using a creative image to convey a truth about the subject in a clear, colourful way.
Metaphors are wonderful for packing rich, detailed description into as few words as possible. For example, “the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas” is a beautifully descriptive metaphor from Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman. The rich and direct metaphor is much more powerful phrasing than tediously describing the scene: “it was a dark and stormy night, and the moon was full and glowing like some glowy effervescent round thing, like a coin maybe, but not one of those scummy ones that get tossed in the gutter, like a big important glowing coin, and the seas were tossing about something terrible.” Gets tiresome, no?
The word “metaphor” comes from the Greek metaphorá, which means “to transfer” or “to carry over.” This suggests a kind of literary transference, in which you’re taking the idea behind one word and maneuvering it into place behind another word. It’s this exciting, slightly haphazard malleability language that gives us so many wonderful literary devices, like metaphors, to use in our work.
Metaphor vs. simile
Now that we know what a metaphor is, what about a simile? These are two literary devices that get easily confused because they’re so closely related.
While a metaphor takes one idea and uses it in place of another one, a simile draws a parallel between two ideas using connecting words like “as,” “like,” or “similar to.” For example, “skin white as snow, lips red as roses” uses two similes to describe someone in a visual way. In both cases the sentence uses the word “as” to suggest a connection. If you were to say, “her lips were roses in full bloom,” that’s a metaphor, not a simile, because we’re equating them directly and not using comparison words like “as.”
Let’s revisit the metaphor “she was a night owl.” You could also communicate the same idea using a simile: “she stayed up until the wee hours of the morning as easily as an owl,” which is wordier but not bad either. Both metaphors and similes work beautifully when used well, and it’s your job as the writer to decide which is right for each sensory moment of your story.
Metaphor vs. metonym
A metonym is another literary device that’s similar to a metaphor, in that it uses one thing to stand in place for another thing. The difference is that a metaphor uses two seemingly unrelated concepts to create a new perspective, while a metonym uses a smaller idea to encompass a larger one.
For example, the city of London was once called “The Big Smoke,” alluding to the excessive exhaust and pollution in the city’s air; here, the small visual of smoke is used to represent the larger city as a whole. The American film industry is often referred to as “Hollywood” and the stock exchange is often called “Wall Street”; both of these metonyms use a small slice of the industry’s location to represent the idea in its entirety.
Using a “mother tongue” to mean a language or someone’s “word” to indicate a promise made are other examples of metonyms. Unlike metaphors, a metonym must use two closely related ideas with an obvious connection. While metaphors are used to create vivid, original images, metonyms are mostly used for brevity and impact.
Line level metaphors vs. story metaphors
Now that we have a clear idea of what metaphors are, let’s look at the two major ways they can be used in a story: at a line level, and at a broader story level.
Line level metaphors are the types of metaphors we looked at above: using two seemingly unrelated ideas to present a powerful, original image. For example, writing that a character has “the heart of a lion” to imply that they have a lot of inner strength is a line level metaphor. So is “he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing” or “she was a forgotten branch of the family tree.” Line level metaphors work instantaneously in small doses to give colour and imaginative detail to your story.
In contrast to line level metaphors, story level metaphors take root deeper under the surface of the story at large. They’re usually sustained for longer periods of time and work to convey connections between two ideas on a more grander, but also more subtle level. For example, The Wizard of Oz contains a number of story level metaphors that have been studied by scholars for decades: for example, the main character’s journey along the yellow brick road is thought to be a story level metaphor for the journey we take through life—going out in search of something greater, of a way out of our self-imposed limitations, only to find that what the adventure was really all about was finding a place to call home. The yellow brick road occurs repeatedly throughout the story, and its interpretation as a metaphor is only effective if we consider its place across the entire narrative. That’s what makes it a story level metaphor.
A number of political metaphors have been attributed to the supporting characters in The Wizard of Oz too, such as the Scarecrow as a metaphor for the struggles of American farmers of the time, the Tin Man as a metaphor for the equally worn out industrial workers, and the domesticated flying monkeys as a metaphor for the displaced and mistreated indigenous people. These metaphors could have been intentional on the part of the author, they could have crept in subconsciously, or they could have been attributed later during in-depth studies of the work.
The exact meanings in L. Frank Baum’s iconic work can only be guessed at, but these story level metaphors give you an idea of the sorts of deeper socially relevant meanings you can weave throughout your own story.
The 5 different types of metaphor
Now that we’ve explored the different ways you can use metaphors in your writing, let’s take a closer look at the specific types of metaphors you have available in your box of writer’s tools. (that was another metaphor. The box is your brain.)
1. Standard metaphor
Also called a simple or direct metaphor, this metaphor follows the basic line level formula of this thing is actually this other thing. “Life is a rollercoaster (/highway/song/day-old bottle of champagne)” is a standard metaphor. So is “a fish out of water” and “all the world’s a stage.”
2. Implied metaphor
Like astandard metaphor, an implied metaphor also works on a line level; but unlike a standard metaphor, an implied metaphor uses subtler imagery to suggest a correlation rather than stating the correlation outright. To say that someone was “lured into a web” implies a similarity between the lurer and a spider; someone who “barks orders” or “purrs contentedly” makes us think of the actions of a dog or a cat in a smoother, more elegant way than if we had said “she was a purring cat.” You could also say that someone “lights up a room,” comparing them to the sun or a daylit window.
3. Visual metaphor
Sometimes called a pictorial metaphor, a visual metaphor is most common in ads and other visual marketing mediums. An advertisement for a sports car might show a picture of a cheetah, suggesting the animal’s speed and strength. Likewise, a perfume advertisement might use a range of visual metaphors to imply both the scent and the promised reactions to it, such as a fresh cut summer lawn or velvet theatre curtains. Visual metaphors are also used in safety and warning signs to convey an idea without using words.
Though less commonly used in literature, they are frequently explored in a range of other storytelling mediums to help convey abstract and thematic ideas in concrete, creative ways.
4. Extended metaphor
Extended metaphors are where a metaphor, either line level or story level (or a combination of the two), is used for a longer story beat or recurs consistently throughout a work.
In The Great Gatsby, the central character begins a speech with “this is a valley of ashes,” comparing the impoverished people of the city to the image of ash. For a paragraph, he observes and laments the “ash-grey men” and their ash houses and chimneys, building on this metaphor with each line until we can see the entire grey world through his eyes.
Story level metaphors are nearly always extended throughout the narrative, whether it’s a small scene or an entire novel. They build on a seed of an idea and carry it throughout the events of the plot to help support the story’s central theme.
When the extended metaphor becomes so huge that the entire story, plot, and characters become a metaphor for something else—such as George Orwell’s famous novel Animal Farm, which is a metaphor for the political events leading to the Russian Revolution—the story is called an allegory.
A malaphor, also called a mixed metaphor, is when a commonly used metaphor is turned on its head. This could be something like telling someone they’re “not the sharpest apple in the sandbox” or saying “we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.” These can be lighthearted, humourous, and sometimes even convey a clever new meaning.
Be mindful, however, of using malaphors unintentionally, as they can be distracting. Saying “you hit the nail on the nose” or calling a book “moth-eared” stick out in literature in a less positive way and can pull your reader out of your story.
How to use metaphors in your story
Using metaphors in writing is often an instinctive reaction to trying to communicate something, because our brains naturally look for connections in the world all the time. Here are a few things you can keep in mind when it comes to using the magic of metaphor in your own work.
1. Begin with character
In a great story, everything should come from a place of character and metaphors are no exception. You can use metaphors to communicate something about the way a character looks, thinks, or behaves—for example, “she was a flamingo in a flock of pigeons,” or “he’s a rhinoceros in the boardroom.”
You could also use metaphor to explore the relationship between two characters. For example, in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare uses his now-famous metaphor, “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” In this instance, Shakespeare is using the sun as a metaphor for Juliet’s radiance. And yet, when we look closer, we see that we’re not actually talking about Juliet at all. The metaphor is coming from what Romeo sees when he looks at her, the way he perceives the connection they have. The sun isn’t really a metaphor for a girl—it’s a metaphor for the central character’s love for her.
2. Examine your settings
Evocative settings are a wonderful way to add depth to any story. Using metaphors can make your settings even more powerful. For example, you can say that a city was dark, depressing, and defeatist, or could say “the city was a junkyard of abandoned dreams.” Better, yeah? Not only does it give us all the information we need, but it gives us a vivid visual of a decrepit car park piled up with once-colourful dreams its residents had discarded long ago.
You could use this technique to explore smaller individual settings as well, like saying “her apartment was a matchbox on the fifth floor” (her apartment was very small), or “the head office was Mount Olympus to an industry of worshippers” (comparing the god-like quality of a company’s CEOs). The possibilities are endless.
3. Explore your theme
Metaphor is one of the best literary devices for supporting your story’s theme. They help the reader look at the world of your story, and the message it’s trying to convey, in a new way.
This works on both the line level and the story level. For example, the imagery conveyed by the “junkyard” metaphor above gives further depth and richness to a themes of corruption, depravity, or fear vs. hope. If you were to describe the same city as “a glossy chrome playground for a bright new generation” or “a garden blooming with new ideas and new ideals,” it would give a very different tone to your story.
On a story level, you can use metaphor to tell another story underneath the one on the surface. In The Wizard of Oz we saw how characters can be metaphors for real people, societal issues, or current events. Prominent locations in your story can be metaphors, too—for instance, you could write about a guarded military complex on a distant alien planet as a metaphor for the White House, the summit of the European Union, the headquarters of a major cosmetics brand, or your old high school. These metaphors help communicate new perspectives and new ideas to your reader.
Metaphor brings colour to the world of your story
Metaphors are something we see nearly every day in our colloquial speech, entertainment, and advertisements. It’s easy to forget that there’s a real art to incorporating them into a story and using them to elevate that story into something new. When used well, metaphors can convey sensory detail, character, humour, social awareness, and theme. Try using creative metaphors to help your readers see your story—and the world—in an exciting new way.