Saturday, November 6, 2010

Brainstorming Metaphors

A dead metaphor or other overworked bit of comparative language can break the reader bond, Gardner's "fictive dream" state, by boring the reader. Cliches fail to engage the imagination, and they expose weak spots in the writer's thought process. They will still creep into first drafts -- it's inevitable, especially during fast drafts. NaNo, anyone? But it's important to cull them during revisions and replace them with more apt language.

Brainstorming a new metaphor is not all that difficult. Let's say you have a real clunker, a horrid, turgid, dull simile that would make any worthy reader groan: "Her swan-like neck" used to describe a romance heroine in an intimate scene. Ugh. I cringe. Bet you do, too.

There are at least two ways to brainstorm new descriptive language there. The first is to tackle it from the underlying concept. In this case, the swan-like appearance of the neck refers to length and slenderness rather than to feathers or whiteness or twisty flexibility. So think about other things that are long and slender. Don't worry about whether they make sense. Just list as many as you can think of:

rebar, downspouts, those long skinny balloons, string, spider legs, a garden hose, kudzu vines, hanging moss, icicles, a silk scarf, butterfly feelers

As you see, the results can be mixed -- which is fine, because this kind of creative flexing will never hurt you, and because some of these images might be useful later even if you don't use them now. Some of them lose the sense of flexibility (rebar? honestly, it was the first long skinny thing I thought of, and that is just SAD), and some of them connote things you might not want to incorporate (icicles = cold, frigid, immobile). But eventually, you'll hit on something that might work and won't bore the crap out of your readers. I'm kinda grooving on that hanging moss image as something very organic and natural and tactile, but it has connotations that might prohibit its use in a particular scene.

The other method is to chain ideas starting with the comparison itself. In this case, we would start with the swan's neck, which might take us to giraffe necks, which might take us to elephant trunks, which might take us to steamer trunks, which might take us to steamer ships, which might take us to a graceful column of steam emitting from a chimney. Hmm. Maybe there's something in that image. Or maybe not. Maybe we need to start over again -- swan neck, to swan beak, to trumpets, to horns, to strings, to the long throat of a bass and the musician's hands moving up and down its length -- this might work. Physical love as a symphony has been used before, but maybe not this particular image in this particular way. Is it remote enough from existing cliches to work? (Side note: I don't ever want to see the word crescendo in a sex scene again.)

In any case, playing with these two techniques during revision will eventually lead you to a fresher idea than the one you had before. Once you've found your comparative language, the next step is examining it in the context of the scene. You want something that either fits in so smoothly that it won't jar the reader out of the context, or you want something so jarring that it requires explanation and behaves like a conceit. Generally, especially in genre fiction, choose the smooth over the jarring. These readers aren't there to groove on your philosophical constructs, but they do want a great, dynamic, engrossing story. Smooth, fresh language can help you deliver that to them.



Leah said...

Great post, Theresa. Metaphor and simile are my favorite ways to play with language (confession: I write poetry), and this method is something I use often.

I'd like to add that, aside from looking beyond clichés when it comes to metaphor, it's also important to break from cliché when choosing the target of figurative language.

Some things are frequent targets of metaphor: skies, celestial bodies, weather, certain parts of human anatomy, etc. But a lot of the universe goes neglected, and focusing your poet's eye on unexpected things--not just objects but sounds, smells, movement, mood, and on and on--can also bring freshness to figurative language.

Jordan said...

I really rlike the association techniques you use here. In the past, I've done research into images the characters would be familiar with, which can yield great results—but sometimes (often), if you have to research it, your readers will too.

Adrian said...

I'm terrible at metaphors. I can't even come up with the bad ones.

"the long throat of a bass and the musician's hands moving up and down its length"

Heh, I read "bass" as the fish rather than the stringed instrument, and then I thought of that odd Muppet character that uses fish as musical instruments. I guessing these aren't images you'd want to invoke in an intimate scene, but I got a really good chuckle in before I realized my error.

Edittorrent said...

I was just reading a contest entry where the character often thought in good metaphors, and I liked it! I did wonder if in deep POV, this might seem too much like author-intrusion, that these were the author's metaphors, not the character's. It didn't much bother me, but I'm wondering when that might pose a problem

green_knight said...

You can also use metaphors to compare the known to the unknown. This is particularly useful in speculative fiction where you can drop in the oddest worldbuilding by tieing it to obvious things. The engine roared like [unknown animal], deafening and deadly. When you find [animal] tracks, you'll already know what to expect.

Julie Harrington said...

I'm a total metaphor and simile girl and I do think this way in "real life" not just when I'm writing. So I don't know... if the character is observant, things about things in a slightly offbeat way, and it's done sparingly/realistically... I could buy it and not consider it author intrusion. If it's poetic all the time, I think maybe one could argue its intrusive, but where does that line blur with voice and style?


Clare K. R. Miller said...

Wow, this is a great post, thank you! I don't tend to use metaphors and similes much in my own writing, but I do really admire when an author comes up with one that is fresh and works well. (My favorite, from Douglas Adams, probably somewhat paraphrased: "The ships hung in the sky in exactly the way that bricks don't.") Maybe this inspiration will help me add more interesting metaphors to my own work.

Anonymous said...

I must admit that out of your selection, the swan gave me the most attractive connotation. Perhaps it is also in the delivery of the metaphor that makes it unique. Swan-like sounds clumsy while moved with the gentlness of a swan fits the mood more. Hanging moss made me think gangly. Great points!

gj said...

Brainstorming a metaphor from within a character's POV also leads to fresh metaphrs, with the added benefit that then the metaphor can help to reinforce the character's POV.

In other words, if the character is a hairdresser, he's going to think of everything (or at least many things) in terms of hair and style and head structure and ... whatever else is involved (I'm kinda' hairstyle impaired, and don't give it much thought, but a hairdresser would obsess about it the way we obsess about grammar and pov, etc.).

So, instead of thinking a neck is swanlike, a hairdresser is going to think of a neck as suitable for a certain style or perhaps being able to carry off all styles.

Otherwise, I do think there's a risk of author intrusion. If you've got an illiterate pov character, and she's comparing things to literary counterparts, it's going to feel odd. Or a bricklayer who's using a metaphor involving women's fashion. Or a vegetarian using a metaphor involving veal.