A metaphor is a literary device writers use to make their writing more evocative. Without going into wordy explanations, a writer can use the figurative language of a metaphor for illustrative purposes or to highlight the similarities between two different ideas, activities, or objects.
A metaphor is made up of two parts, a tenor, which is the subject of the metaphor, and the vehicle, which is the thing that illustrates the metaphor. There are more than a dozen different kinds of metaphors, including absolute, complex, conceptual, conventional, creative, dead, extended, mixed, primary, root, simile, submerged, therapeutic, and visual, that are used in writing to illustrate or symbolize something else.
An example of one of the more expressive metaphors in literature comes from American fiction writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once wrote, "All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath." A complex metaphor like this works because it is sensory. Most people know what it feels like to swim underwater while they hold their breath. Even if they are not writers, the metaphor he uses gives a sense of what the process feels like.
Metaphors often get confused with similes. Whereas a metaphor makes a declarative statement that one thing is another thing, a simile uses words “like” or “as” to compare two similar things. The difference is subtle but distinct. For example, if Fitzgerald had written that "good writing is like swimming underwater," it would be a simile. The other part that can get confusing is that a simile is a type of metaphor, but a metaphor is not always a simile.
Metaphors in Literature and Popular Culture
Perhaps one of the most commonly cited examples of a metaphor in English literature is Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage" monologue from "As You Like It":
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances..."
One reason this metaphor is effective is that each line contains a separate metaphor, but all come together as part of a single, broader idea—that life itself is like a stage play. Some other examples of metaphors in literature and popular culture include:
- "You are the sunshine of my life...And if I thought our love was ending, I'd find myself drowning in my own tears." -Stevie Wonder
- "I finally asked you to dance on the last slow song, beneath the moon that was really a disco ball." -Lady Antebellum
- "The sky was a purple bruise, the ground was iron, and you fell all around the town until you looked the same." -Elvis Costello
- "You ain't nothing but a hound dog." -Made famous by Elvis Presley, but written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
- “A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running." -Groucho Marx
- “Dying is a wild night and a new road.” -Emily Dickinson
- “Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes you drown.” -Margaret Atwood
- “I’m a little pencil in the hand of a writing God.” -Mother Teresa
- “Books are the mirrors of the soul.” -Virginia Woolf
Each of these metaphors works in different ways, but they all force the reader to think about what they mean. Once the reader is able to make a connection to the metaphor, the meaning becomes very clear. Take that last line, for instance. Imagining a mirror that can look into your soul evokes a powerful image of the impact books can have.
Mixed and Extended Metaphors
Like most literary devices, metaphors can be ineffective when misused. They end up either confusing the reader or drawing attention to the author's lack of skill. A mixed metaphor moves from one reference to a second, unrelated, or inconsistent thing.
For example, in the statement "Our keyboard will teach your mind's eye to play by ear," the speaker has mixed two metaphors, leading to nonsense.
However, there are some instances when mixed metaphors work despite themselves somehow. In his song "Little Red Corvette," Prince, a songwriter known for his sexually-charged lyrics, compares the proclivities of a paramour to a fast car and mixes in a metaphor about the use of contraceptives.
"I guess I should've known by the way you parked your car sideways, that it wouldn't last," he sings, before mixing in another metaphor with the line, "See, you're the kinda person that believes in makin' out once—love 'em and leave 'em fast. I guess I must be dumb 'cuz you had a pocket full of horses, Trojan and some of them used."
The latter part of that verse is a mixed metaphor that then becomes an extended metaphor later in the song when Prince references his paramour's past lovers. "I guess I should've closed my eyes when you drove me to the place where your horses run free. 'Cause I felt a little ill when I saw all the pictures of the jockeys that were there before me."
Cliched Metaphors to Avoid
As you can see, you don't have to look very far to find examples of metaphors. We hear and use various common expressions and cliches every day that are metaphors:
- It's raining cats and dogs.
- I'm visiting an old flame.
- He's a loose cannon.
- She found herself behind the eight ball.
- He drives me up a wall.
- She saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
Although these are all are good examples of what metaphors are and how they can effectively express thoughts or ideas, they represent the sort of cliches—or dead metaphors—that should be avoided in writing. Metaphors are most effective when they are original and help readers envision complex feelings or actions in ways they never have.