M is for Metaphor #AtoZChallenge

A guest post by LJ Cohen

If there's one phrase that every writer has heard ad nauseum, it's "show, don't tell." When I first came across that advice, I understood it in a very narrow context: that I had to describe every aspect of scene, character, and plot, avoiding the use of any sort of exposition.

Eventually, I realized that doing so would result in a very tedious, overwritten story. A more nuanced view of "show, don't tell," is in making sure that the story's language conveys emotion and action without the writer telegraphing it or summarizing it for the reader.

The Department of Redundancy Department

One of my earliest writing 'tics' was in telling the reader something about the emotional state of my character and then showing the self-same thing in description. For example (and completely off the cuff). She was angry. Her lips pressed together tightly and she frowned as she thought about how Ralph had lied to her.

This is weak writing. It is writing that doesn't convey much, nor is it writing that trusts the reader, or calls on the reader to create meaning from shared experiences.

What's a Meta for?

Poetic tools such as metaphor, and it's companion, simile, can enhance the emotional impact and vividness of writing. The simile is a comparison that uses like or as. One that practically every child grows up learning is from the lyrics to Mary Had a Little Lamb: "It's fleece was white as snow." A metaphor is a type of comparison that doesn't use like or as. It is a more direct juxtaposition of two concepts or elements. Another simple example, "apple cheeked" is a way of conveying someone's cheeks are round and red. It connotes healthy and approachable. Metaphors are, at least in part, shared cultural touchstones and can carry different meanings depending on society and beliefs.

So, if you're not a poet, why should you use these kind of comparisons? One reason is that metaphorical images can carry characterization and description along with them and eliminate the need to tell your reader the context.

Returning to our unnamed character and her lover, Ralph, in the previous example, we could simply omit the first telling sentence and let the second one stand on its own. Her lips pressed together tightly and she frowned as she thought about how Ralph had lied to her. It's better in that it doesn't need the preamble to introduce what our protagonist is feeling, but it's still fairly flat on the page. We could inject more poetic language to try and heighten the readers' connection with the story. Perhaps something like: Ralph had lied to her. She pressed her lips together and swallowed the poisonous words she wanted to spit out instead.

If, in the story's context, we find out that the character is a chef or an apothecary, then the metaphor is even more apt, in that it echoes the character's world and the way she might view it.

You say toMAYto and I say toMAHto

The more closely you chose metaphorical language that hews to the character's lived experiences, the more that metaphor will carry context, character, setting, and theme. Even the casual sayings your characters use can employ the tools of metaphor to deepen the writing. In one of my manuscripts, I have two protagonists, one from a desert culture, the other from a sailing one. Zev uses the expression "So who tracked sand in your tent?" to convey annoyance.

Lilliane uses sailing language to describe a yurt-like structure she comes across in her travels with Zev: Wooden ribs arched up to form the roof. . . .It was like being inside an inverted boat’s hull. And in her reaction to the death of her attackers: Her fury should have ebbed with the deaths of these two men, but it persisted, like flood waters that continued to rise long after the rain ended. In the context of each POV, Zev would never use water images to carry his emotions and Lilliane would not use desert imagery for hers. It is one way of distinguishing between their two worlds and voices.

These examples combine metaphor and simile to create a fuller and richer world than if I had used more generic imagery, less connected to each character's lived experience.

Pass the Salt

Regardless of what genre you write, the tools of poetic comparisons can enhance your work. However, be aware of overwrought comparisons. Metaphorical language is the seasoning in your word stew. (See what I did there?) And as with all seasonings, a little can go along way.

A little about LJ Cohen

LJ Cohen is a blogger, poet, and novelist in the Boston, MA area. She took a leap of faith from a 25 year career as a physical therapist to focus on writing. With nearly seven completed manuscripts to her name, LJ is no stranger to perseverance in the face of rejection. She has found the perfect combination of chocolate, red wine, and allowing herself to wallow in self-pity for exactly one day before throwing herself back into the magic of word-craft. Despite near misses from editors on two separate manuscripts, LJ's agent has not given up on her and continues to submit her work. LJ refuses to give up on herself, either, and independently published one of those stories to extremely positive reviews. That book, The Between, a YA fantasy, is available in all the usual places.

Check out her website HERE.

Follow her on Twitter: @lisajanicecohen

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