Friday, August 26, 2016

Fiction Friday: Metaphor and Voice

On Sunday over at Eight Ladies Writing, Jilly talked about writing voice.
After forty years of writing, my own voice has developed a lot over the past five, due in large part to my trusty beta reader and queen of metaphor, Nicole Amsler. Because the experience of developing a stronger voice is so recent, I have some thoughts to offer on this topic.
I recommend going here to review Jilly’s post before you read this. If you don’t have time to do that, here’s a brief overview:
Jilly’s protagonist, Alexis, is a six-foot-tall, shaven-headed girl who was raised as a boy in a monastery of fighting monks. In her first real fight, she fells a much larger opponent in hand-to-hand combat. Jilly was looking for a metaphor to capture the way he falls to the ground.
She also mentioned a perfect metaphor she encountered in Sir Terry Pratchett’s fourth Discworld book, Mort: “Binky moved at an easy gallop, his great muscles sliding under his skin as easily as alligators off a sandbank.”
I don’t aspire to the level of Pratchett (okay, I aspire, but I don’t expect to pull it off), but there are a few requirements for creating good, voicey metaphors:
1) Original. Clichés are rich images—dropped like a stone, fell like a tree—but readers have seen them so many times they’ve lost their vividness. To really be impactful, metaphors and similes need to be fresh.
In one of Annie Proulx’s books, The Shipping News, she described a little girl’s hand as “hot as a dog’s paw.” Dogs’ normal body temperatures run a degree or two above humans’, so if you’ve ever handled a dog’s foot, that image creates a visceral impact.
2) Bounded by the point-of-view character’s experience.
Jilly attacked the task of identifying a strong metaphor in the right way—by first defining the boundaries of her character’s life and then looking for an experience that sums up what’s currently going on for her—seeing her felled opponent drop heavily to the ground.
This is something to consider when you’re building your world. Every decision you make about what does and doesn’t exist in the setting you create for your characters sets limitations on what metaphors, and even individual words, you’ll be able to use in describing later events.
One metaphor that occurred to me for Jilly’s situation is the water bucket dropping into the well.
The problem with this, of course, is that people typically lower buckets into wells slowly, using the hand-crank provided at the top of the well. Only if the axle had recently been oiled and the water-bearer just let the bucket drop unhindered would you get momentum comparable to an unconscious man falling to the ground.
Which brings us to the third requirement:
3) Intuitive.
Metaphors that enrich our writing without making it strained and hard to follow evoke an instantaneous image. They’re like the punch-line of a joke—if someone has to explain it, it isn’t funny. Similarly, if a metaphor needs a long setup, the setup robs it of intensity.
That’s why Pratchett’s alligator and Proulx’s dog paw work so well.
4) Bounded by the reader’s experience
This is a subset of “intuitive.” What is intuitive for one reader may not be for another. I would argue that Pratchett’s alligator works better than Proulx’s dog because if you’ve never handled a dog’s paw, you won’t know how hot they feel, but most of us have seen movies or nature programs showing alligators slithering off a sandbank.
You can’t, of course, account for every potential reader, but keeping in mind the general level of exposure your audience has with your planned metaphor is a good idea.
5) Generating good metaphors:
The first thing I generally do is just ask myself what the thing I’m trying to describe looks like or feels like or sounds like or smells like. I try to let words and images run through my mind, unfiltered.
If that doesn’t bring up anything useful, I sometimes try Googling the quality I’m trying to describe, (e.g. “momentum”). Often, I limit the results to images, since I don’t want to steal someone else’s words. (And sometimes I’m desperate and cheerfully rip off other, better writers.)
Sometimes you can take an element of what you’re describing and just work with that. For example, instead of describing how he fell, you might try describing how it sounded when he hit the ground.
Another option is to use the cliché, but making it very specific to the POV character’s world: not just “He fell like a tree,” but “He fell like a .” You’ll want to set this up ahead of time.
For example, in Jilly’s case, as Alexis is making her way through the forest prior to the fight, she think about the Abraxis tree that towers over every other tree in the forest. One time, one was felled near the monastery. It shook the earth for three miles in any direction. Maybe it knocked over the candles on the altar. Then, pages later, when her opponent drops, she can just make a short-hand reference to an event the reader is already familiar with.
How do you go about generating strong, voicey metaphors?
(This post was originally published on Eight Ladies Writing.)


  1. Lots of ideas to think about. Now I know why a certain simile or metaphor can feel so right when I read it.

  2. I especially like thinking of a good metaphor being like a good punchline to a joke. Guess I just wrote a simile.


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