For me, it was while watching Sex Education on Netflix. The scene when Jackson recites the following lines for auditioning in the school play:
“Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, who is already sick and pale with grief.”
Breaking the monotony, these lines made the me sit up and take notice.
That’s the power of a metaphor. Unlike a simile, that’ll spoon-feed the emotion by employing “like” and “as”; metaphors make your imagination work a bit harder.
So, what is a metaphor?
Metaphor comes from the Greek word metapherein, which means “to transfer”. You transfer the meaning of one phrase/object to another. They are made up of two parts. Tenor: what you wish to describe. It could be a person, an emotion or a concept. Vehicle: a figurative expression, which carries the meaning of the tenor.
“But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
Is it the east, and Juliet is the sun?”
Juliet (tenor) is compared to the sun, and her standing at the window is likened to sunrise. Qualities of the sun, are transferred to Juliet and you instantly visualize her —bright as the sunlight. There is no need for a literal description.
Why use metaphors?
1. Metaphors make it easier to explain abstract concepts
Let’s say, you want to explain jealousy.
You could use the dictionary definition: a hostile attitude towards a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage (from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/jealous)
A metaphor instead: “Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”
Metaphors are also handy in explaining tricky scientific concepts.
Take for example, Entropy
Dictionary definition of Entropy is the degree of disorder or uncertainty in a system (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/entropy)
A metaphor can explain it better: Entropy is akin to children bouncing in a bouncy castle —disorder, uncertainty in a system and energy expended without doing any useful work.
2. Metaphors make your prose livelier
Let’s not rush into love
“It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden, Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be” – Juliet hinting that it would be foolish to rush into love.
Which one sounds better?
3. Metaphors makes your think
Metaphors provide a brief pause in the prose for the readers to gather their thoughts, visualize and explore various possibilities. Readers like it when writers make them think.
Different versions of metaphors
Direct metaphors: A straightforward transfer of meaning using “is”
“All the world is a stage”
Implied metaphors: Comparison is made between two things, but one of them isn’t mentioned.
“Thoughts fluttering through my head” Thoughts are compared to butterflies — no mention of a butterfly though, that’s for you to imagine.
Extended metaphors: When a metaphor is made up of more than one phrase.
“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief, That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.”
Romeo, going on and on and on about his lady love…
© 2020 Pavitra Baxi
Writing metaphors is tough but not impossible. Once you master the art, you will be tempted to use a lot of it in your writing. Use it sparingly so as not to slow down your readers and drown them in a sea of implications.