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Critical Reading: More on Figurative Language

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

I devoted quite a bit of space in yesterday’s post on figurative language. Here’s another take on it from literary agent Chip MacGregor:

Discovering Metaphor
by Chip MacGregor

The phone rang. It was an author, asking if he could hire me to consult with them on a manuscript. Why?

“My publisher says it needs more.”

When I ask more what, he says, “More fancy stuff. Symbols. Images. All that crap.”

I try to explain symbolic language isn’t something that can be dumped onto a manuscript later, like gravy ladled across potatoes. He harumphs and hangs up, unaware how metaphor works, and unwilling to learn.

If he’d stayed, I would have explained. A metaphor isn’t a literary trick, made to fancy-up your bland writing. It’s the basic image that gives life to your idea.

Do you know where the word “metaphor” comes from? Meta is Greek for “over.” Pherein is the action “to carry.” When you have one strong image, it can carry over into something else. A metaphor is often a comparison between two things that might at first seem an unlikely pair, but that share a similar quality. That quality carries over from one to another. I.A. Richards refers to the two aspects of metaphor as “the tenor” and “the vehicle.” The tenor is the main subject; the vehicle is the image that embodies it. So in the sentence, “She has all the personality of a flat tire,” her dull personality is the tenor, and a flat tire is the vehicle.

But symbolic language isn’t just a literary device — a way of finding creative descriptions of interesting or emotional people. A truly effective metaphor helps the reader understand the tenor and the vehicle. It gives insight, presenting an idea that hasn’t been seen before. In offering a strong metaphor, the writer gives us a whole new way of viewing things. So you can’t just stick in a metaphor here and there — they’ll seem contrived. Instead, the writing comes out of your metaphor — the natural way the author would describe these events.

When you really know something well, you can make comparisons to it, as a way to offer a more full-bodied description. My father knew the sea. He had spent years on it, and could describe waves and wind and sails in a hundred different ways. He knew the lives of sailors and merchant marines, and used “navy talk” in everyday life. More than that, he could tell you what it was like — could draw comparisons to the sea and ships when he came across a similar situation. For my father, a seafaring metaphor wasn’t a literary device…it was how he observed the world.

In your writing, you’ll discover you have themes drawn from your life. Often times they come from tragedy or failure, since the difficult parts of life mark us more than our successes. In my writing, I find myself coming back to the themes of abandonment and difficult choices — it’s because my childhood taught me life would offer both. It seems the more I write, the more I find ways to explore those themes. I don’t know what your particular disaster is, but I’m sure it will be reflected in your work. And that is where you’ll discover metaphor — in the comparisons between the things you know.

In one sense, it is the writer’s job to create images. A weak or contrived image will always reveal itself because it will feel like the author is trying too hard to be deep. He or she is trying to be “fancy” (to use the phrase preferred by Coleridge). If your images call attention to themselves, they’re too fancy…and you’re probably trying too hard. Instead of relying on what you know to evidence itself in your work, you’re trying to insert extra meaning. But the main goal of using a metaphor is not to show off, or to simply reveal resemblances between two things. The main goal is to establish a vivid image in the mind of the reader that helps him or her to better understand the main subject. That’s why the best metaphors usually offer sensory details, so that the reader will have a specific image in mind.

What are the things you know? What are the recurring images in your writing? That’s where you’ll discover the richest metaphors.

  1. Wednesday, December 5, 2007 8:53 am

    LOL, trying too hard to be deep. Uh, I never do that, right Kaye? Just kidding–been there in a big way. Now I’m combing my brain for things I know really well that won’t come off as contrived. Great post!


  2. Wednesday, December 5, 2007 2:10 pm

    Hmmm…now I’m wondering what in my life would be a rich mine to explore for seemless metaphors. Excellent post.


  3. Sharon Lavy permalink
    Friday, December 7, 2007 8:52 am

    Thank you for the great informative article. I will want to refer to it again and again.



  4. Saturday, January 26, 2008 1:46 am

    Great article guys! Very insightful and informative.

    Thanks for posting it.




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