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Murder Your Metaphors

November 6, 2013

(Part of an occasional series on writing)

The process of learning to write comes in distinct stages, like peeling the layers of an onion. Each new layer first appears smooth and shiny. But over time the surface dulls and spiders with wrinkles. Somehow the layer that once appeared as an achievement has morphed into an obstacle to overcome.

Each Eureka! moment is followed by Aw, shit.

Layer 1: You can write! It’s easy to put words on the page.

Ah, snap! They are terrible. People will read them and know: You are a fool.

Layer 2: Ah, but you can hide behind your words! Embellish and embroider, lay on adjectives, adverbs, diversionary phrases and fancy words, so thick that no one will notice.

Nuh uh. Not fooling anybody. You’re naked under all that armor, and it’s not a pretty sight.

Layer 3: Big buzz! If you feel what you’re writing about, the reader will feel it, and it must be good. So you SHOUT, in all caps, italicize. Gush, turning every sentence up to 11.

Sorry, it’s “Not on the Page.” The feeling. Just a bunch of annoying tics.

Layer 4: You’re finally growing up. Learning to understate. Putting your prose on a diet.

It’s dead, mired in generalities. Because you forgot “Show don’t tell.”

Layer 5: The power of Description! The color of her skirt and the smell of her hair, shape of the clouds and every minute detail…

Way too much. Boring.

Layer 6: Now you’ve got it. Editing. To paraphrase the late, great Elmore Leonard – “Cut out the boring parts.”

And so on down through the layers. There are brief moments when you stand back from your work, the remaining layers miraculously become transparent, and you glimpse your goal at the center of the onion:


And you see there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with adjectives, description, style ,spare or florid. The value of these things is all in relationship to the question: How do they advance the story?

The next layer requires special attention.


From the first one you birth you’re head over heels, narcissus in love with his own creation. And why not? In metaphors dull words take flight from the quotidian into the realm of the supernatural. And you’ve always been a sucker for magic.

Oh, you love your metaphors. They smile so sweetly, bat their eyes and you’re lost.

But then you notice this odor about them. The smell of darlings.

The darlings that the same cats who exhort you to “show don’t tell” are always saying that you must kill.

“Kill your darlings.” Why? You’re not a violent man. Who aside from Hannibal Lecter goes about that kind of bloody business?

A good writer, that’s who. The danger with metaphors is the same as with the other layers: they can distract from THE STORY.

And metaphors are more dangerous than superfluous adjectives and defensive writing and all the rest, because while that stuff can slow the story down, an over-ripened metaphor can grab your tale by its ears and run it off down the street and right out of town, as your readers eyes glaze over, and prepare to fling the book across the room (Not my iPad, please, Dear! ) Because you’ve lost the thread of the story, and betrayed the reader’s trust.

Which is a cardinal sin in this business.

The potential to highjack the story is intrinsic to the metaphor, because its whole raison d’etre is to diverge from the logical, the factual.

So you vow to cut back on the symbolic language, to stick to a diet of lean similes and near beer allusions, occasionally indulging in a glass or two of organic allegory.

Though perhaps you’re merely in denial. Because what is this suspicious odor of onions, not to speak of these metaphors running down the street.

A meta-metaphor. Sheesh.


Speaking of the street: just now one of those darlings, those femme fatales comes sashaying down your street, making eyes at you, crooking her finger, Come here big boy!

But, you remember, you’re just getting started on that new novel. Novel writing is serious business – no fling. If you’re lucky, true love. But in any case, it’s a marriage.. Once you get going it will not do for this floozy to come barging in, wrecking the story.

But hey. You’re barely engaged. And who will ever know?

No one, because soon as she’s done you’re going to do with her like what’s his name with Sheherazade, kill your little darling, and no one will be the wiser…

She sits by the bed, lights a cigarette, and gets her metaphor on:

Think of your new novel as this rectangular object you want to move from your house

down to the bookstore at the end of the street. A rectangular object, i.e. a book. Except right now it’s more like a dumpster. You toss in ideas, characters, settings, maybe even a theme of two if they fit. Like all dumpsters, this one is plain and ugly and a dull prosaic shape.

And it’s heavy, too heavy to move. So you get a few trusted friends to help push. You brainstorm with them, and you get it to budge an inch or two. But at this rate you’ll all be dead before you get out of the driveway.

Aha! Wheels. You look around the yard and see some rusty spokes and a spare tire with a big hole in it. You cobble together some wheels, mount them on the dumpster. Grease them up.

You shout for your buddies, they come out and with their help you get the thing down the driveway and out on the street. But now they have better things to do. “See ya. Let me know when it gets published.” After all, this is your trip.

What to do?

Odd thing, while you were busy pushing, somebody’s been spiffing this thing up. Painted it nice bright colors, the way you like. And its shape is somehow more svelte.

But the son of a gun is still heavy.

Bingo. You forgot the engine. The lifeblood of the book, the deep emotional currents of love and hate, fear and betrayal. All hooked up the heart of every good story, conflict.

You get the engine in there, tune it up just so until its humming, and what do you know? That darned old dumpster is cruising down the street, by itself. You hop on. Now you’re just along for the ride.

Will you crash into that old Dodge Dart before you get to the bookstore? Will Amazon have shuttered the thing by the time you get there?

Who cares. Because this is the good part. The reason you write.


Funny, for some reason I forgot to mention Layer 8:

See how well I write! Having penetrating the preceding layers I’m ready to impress you with my talent and skill as a writer.

Oops. You forgot your audience. They want to hear a good story. You’re like that guitar player who runs up and down the neck showing you how fast he can play. It’s boring.

Listen to some Mozart. He makes composing sound effortless. Now try to do it yourself.

Didn’t think so.


From → Writing

  1. Very seductive metaphor about not indulging in metaphors 🙂 I really enjoyed this as creative writing as well as advice.

    • Thanks, Sharon.

      I posted this on Open Salon – got a nice comment, then someone who apparently misunderstood – “If you hate metaphors so much, why do you use them so much?”

      On Sat, Nov 9, 2013 at 9:53 PM, Luminous Muse

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