• Midwest Romance Writers

Metaphor Magic

Contributed by MRW Member E.E. Burke


Who doesn’t love a good metaphor? Those delicious literary devices that add so much color and depth to what might otherwise be a boring description.

Sometimes writers get metaphors confused with similes, but there is a difference. Similes use like and as to directly create the comparison. A metaphor imaginatively draws a comparison between unlike things.


Bill is an early bird (metaphor)

Bill is a like a bird, he gets up early. (simile)


Metaphors are useful for abstract concepts and ideas by linking them to a specific, seemingly unrelated thing in an unexpected yet understandable way.


Great metaphors help writers reveal character in an imaginative way. Take this one, for instance, from Dean Koontz in Seize the Night:


“Bobby Holloway says my imagination is a three-hundred-ring circus. Currently, I was in ring two hundred and ninety-nine, with elephants dancing and clowns cart wheeling and tigers leaping through rings of fire. The time had come to step back, leave the main tent, go buy some popcorn and a Coke, bliss out and cool down.”


A metaphor expresses a similarity in a characteristic between two items. To use a metaphor to describe a person, you must first choose what descriptive characteristic of the person you wish to emphasize. I.e., Paul Bunyan is an ox. He is not literally an ox, of course, and the reader knows this. But if a writer describes him this way, they provide a visual image that gives us a much better idea of Paul’s size and strength than if they simply wrote: “Paul Bunyan is really big and strong.”


Metaphors are wonderful for describing a big idea or concept. One of the most commonly cited examples of a metaphor in English literature is a monologue from As You Like It by William Shakespeare.


All the world's a stage,

and all the men and women merely players;

they have their exits and their entrances ...


This quotation expresses a metaphor because the world is not literally a stage. By asserting that the world is a stage, Shakespeare uses points of comparison between the world and a stage to convey an understanding about the mechanics of the world and the behavior of the people within it.

Creating good metaphors takes hard work, make no mistake. However, there are some helpful tips out there. In Mastering Suspense, Structure and Plot by Jane Cleland, there is a chapter on creating metaphors. She recommends an exercise using the senses paired with what you know about your character to help you come up with ideas. She calls it her Metaphor Machine. Generally, here is how it works:


· Sum up the abstract idea or emotion you want to express as a metaphor in one phrase. I.e. We all die. We all die alone.

· Write it down along with a reference to one of the five senses. For instance, the prospect of dying looks like... The prospect of dying tastes like...

· Complete the sentences, allowing your imagination free rein.

· Seek out patterns among your answers to determine a theme

· Write it up.


When you are doing this exercise, put yourself in your character’s shoes. Think like they do. For instance, a young mother would think of death differently than how an old man would perceive the end of life. Whatever metaphor you used for her perspective would reflect this different point of view. Perhaps she sees death as a thief while the lonely old man considers death a welcome visitor.


I tried this exercise for a character in my current WIP.


To a young woman who is desperate to maintain her independence, marriage means the end of freedom. From her perspective, marriage looks like shackles on a slave. It sounds like mournful music. It smells like dirty laundry. It tastes like a bitter medicine. It feels like being locked in a box.

I played with the idea of enslavement and how that might look to this character, and what kind of metaphor would make sense to her. This is what I came up with, expressed through a conversation she is having with another woman:


“Don’t get me wrong. Captain Wendt is a good man. Imminently practical, which was one of the reasons I liked him so well. He does have an annoying tendency to give orders rather than make suggestions. It doesn’t matter, though. He isn’t the problem. Marriage is. It affords men the legal means to put chains on women.”

Indy lifted the locket dangling from a delicate necklace. Cy’s betrothal gift, which he’d insisted she keep even after she had turned him down. She wore it as a memento, but also as a reminder. “Those chains might be forged from gold or silver or some other tempting material, but they are bonds nonetheless.”


Try this exercise the next time you are struggling to communicate an idea or concept or character trait in a creative, imaginative way, and make your own metaphor magic.



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