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Finding freedom

What’s the point of metaphors, similes or other such imagery? Yes, they add colour, but a one-legged Russian general with an odour of bear and a bellowing stutter would add colour too, and I bet you don’t have one of those.

Really, I think a good metaphor does three things:

  1. The writer introduces a pause – the purpose here is to make you, the reader, stop, look and reflect.
  2. The reader recognises something. The feeling is roughly, “Yes! It’s just like that.” But at the same time ...
  3. The reader is surprised. The feeling here is roughly, “But I never thought of it that way before.”

That means, I think, that plenty of more showy and self-conscious metaphors don’t really work. Shakespeare had Romeo say, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Juliet is the sun.”

But honestly, have you ever looked at a teenage girl and ever thought of her as a sun? Iis your view of Juliet in any way deepened or extended by that idea? I seriously doubt it.

(And, uh-oh, I’m coming close to dissing Shakespeare here, which is a punishable offence under the Don’t Bad My Bard Act of 1843. So let me hasten to say that I think Shakespeare probably gave Romeo a strikingly naïve metaphor to tell us something about the boy, not about Juliet. Phew!)

More effective imagery might work something like this:

… in the early days, when our love was settling into the shape of our lives like cake mixture reaching the corners of the tin as it swells and bakes. (Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers.)

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. (Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.)

You couldn't make yourself stop feeling a certain way, no matter what the other person did. You had to just wait. Eventually the feeling went away because others came along. Or sometimes it didn't go away but got squeezed into something tiny, and hung like a piece of tinsel in the back of your mind. (Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge.)

In each of these cases, the author starts by describing the thing he or she is talking about in ordinary language: love settling into the shape of our lives, the peace of an ordinary Sunday, how you can’t make yourself stop feeling a thing. But that first description, although accurate and efficient, doesn’t quite clinch the deal. If there hadn’t been a metaphor to follow, you wouldn’t, as a reader, have stopped to take stock of the thought being presented. The reader’s inclination is, always, to hurtle on without that moment’s thought.

So the first thing a metaphor needs to do is slow the reader down – to arrest them in the moment. The incongruity of the metaphor does that instantly. The reader has to pause to assimilate the sudden incursion of (in these cases) a cake, a garden, and a piece of tinsel. It’s almost as though the reader has pinned a red flag to the piece of prose that’s just gone, saying, “No. Look at this. Consider it properly.”

But you can’t, of course, just stick any old flag in place. The flag has to add something. It has to deliver that little click of recognition, but also add something to the thought that has just gone before.

So ‘Love settling into the shape of our lives’ is clear, but functional. It’s dry. Add the idea of a cake starting to push into the corners of a cake tin and you have a sense of the gradualness of the process, the way crevices get slowly filled. You have also that phrase ‘swells and bakes’ which tells you that the love is growing (something that the earlier language had omitted) and that’s it’s baking, or curing – becoming mature. All that, plus you have the sense of something turning golden and smelling nice. Something functional and dry has turned into a literary moment that you want to break off and eat.

Same thing, give or take, with the other bits I’ve quoted.

Which brings us to the question: how do you do that yourself? How do you gets bits of writing like the ones above into your own text?

Well, I have two parts of the answer, but there’s a crucial third which I’m missing – and which may not exist.

The first part is that you need to be alert, yourself, to the moment in your tale when you want to arrest the reader. You might well, for example, have a moment in your book when your character is enjoying an ordinary, peaceful Sunday. I suspect that your vocabulary comfortably extends to each of those three words. So the first bit of the Marilynne Robinson quote is definitely within your grasp. So your job now is to notice that you want or need to do something more.

You need to have the thought, “Hmm, yes, I’ve described that experience efficiently enough, but I need a dot of colour to flag the moment for the reader’s attention.”

If you have that thought, you are already halfway there. Noticing that you have a job to do is probably the single most important step in actually doing it.

The second part of the answer is that, to find the right image, you have to loosen the handbrake. You can’t find the right image by analysing too closely. You find the right image by detaching a bit – blurring your gaze, not sharpening it. It's like a word association game, or one played when you're under the influence of a mild hallucogenic.

It’s like you go into the feeling (peaceful Sunday) and let yourself forget what you are actually talking about in order to find the image (garden / rain) that it most resembles. Once you have that basic image, you can then start to mess around with the right words (mature garden? Newly mown garden? Spring garden? Newly planted garden?) to find the formulation that works best. Once you have the actual idea (peaceful Sunday = garden after rain), the best way to phrase it is a matter of trial and error, pushing words round to see what fits best.

The third part of the answer is the one where I can’t really offer you much help. How do you release that handbrake? What if the handbrake is jammed on? Where do you find the damn thing? What if the instruction manual for finding the handbrake is written in Japanese, or Cornish, or Kashubian, or Klingon?

Well, I don’t know. All I can say is that my own handbrake has loosened up the more I write. These days, the damn thing is so loose, I can’t park on a hill without running into a parked car or (once) tumbling over a quay into the sea.

I so also think it helps if you lose any sense that you might be ridiculous, or that an image is just silly. (Love? Like cake mix? Don’t be absurd.) And yes, of course, your first three ideas might not work. But that doesn’t mean your fourth one won’t.

Notice when you need a dab of colour. Grope around for images. Tinker with them till their right. And free up that damn hardbrake.

Oh yes, and even if you follow all the advice in this email, you probably still won’t write like Marilynne Robinson. She’s a god.

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Comments (11)
    • Bloom, bloom!  Here I am - in the back border! 

      Bloom, bloom - like a blushing peony under rain.  Agh!  All my petals have dropped off and I'm NUDE.  What about  like Aphrodite rising from the waves?  Drat.  Cliche and Nude again.

      How about My little petals unfurling to the sun?  Well better,  BUT  Oh dash it!

      Bloom Bloom.  Here I am!  In the back border!

      Extended metaphor


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      • Darn it, has he got to be Russian? Your intro brings to mind Charles-Etienne Gudin, the (ultimately) one-legged Napoleonic general who perished in Russia. A really interesting man, if you like military history, and not as nearly well known as he should be. Not sure about his breath, but I suspect as he died of his wounds/gangrene from his missing leg, they may not have noticed if there was, and clearly the least of his worries. If you've not come across him in your research, and have the time, it is worth a look at this summary of his life. https://gudin.rt.com/biography/charles-etienne-gudin/

        General facts aside, that is a really interesting article, and thank you for breaking down in such a tidy way something that we sometimes take for granted and thus at times misuse.

        Act 2 scene 2 'A rose by any other name.......' is a quote that always makes me think and smile. 

        I do feel the use of such devices (similes and metaphors), nice as they are, should be sparing and the content original to lend it extra weight. Reliance on or over-using common metaphors and similes is a frequent novice writer's habit. It is something that is annoying for a reader and shows a lack of originality elsewhere. The Bard arguably uses them a lot. But then the times in which he wrote, the breadth of the language, and the audience for the works were different. I definitely think he has posthumously earned the right and credibility to say they work well. 

        PS. Apparently, Gudin's one-legged remains were found/identified under a dancefloor! Now that is really adding insult to injury!

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        • Like a field of big rocks floating in outer-space the novel was filled with meteors.

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          • Love this analogy:

            “On the left was a Scylla of lower priced dishes that could suggest a penny-pinching lack of flair; and on the right was a Charybdis of delicacies that could empty one’s pockets while painting one pretentious.”

            Armor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

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            • I always enjoy your Friday emails, but this one was my favourite so far.

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