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Sunday, May 11, 2014

THE ABC'S OF HOW 'NOT' to WRITE SPECULATIVE FICTION: M is for METAPHORS, MIXED AND OTHERWISE

METAPHORS AND SIMILES ADD INTEREST AND SPICE TO A STORY. When used effectively, they can lift a piece of work from a simple telling to a work of art. Unique and original metaphors will reflect character traits or temperament, layer mood upon the setting, or contribute to a theme. Conversely, using metaphors and similes improperly, or in thoughtless or overly clever ways, will detract from a story’s strength.  

Mixed metaphors, clichéd metaphors or dying metaphors usually turn up in our prose when we’re being sloppy with our work. They are forgivable in a first draft, but they should be replaced with better devices as we revise and rewrite. Unless there is a specific reason for using mixed, clichéd, or dying metaphors (as in dialogue when they might reflect a character’s mannerism or his careless way of thinking), they should never appear in a final draft. 

A mixed metaphor usually involves two comparisons to a subject, but each comparison is inconsistent with the other. As in:
  • Although he rarely saw the forest for the trees, Jake saw the light dawn in Cory’s eyes.
  • A spinning maelstrom with feet and fists flying, Carlos became a raging bull.
  • Life is a river, but only for a season.
Clichéd or dying metaphors (also see Clichés) are very similar. They occur in metaphorical phrases that have seen common use, so much so that they’ve lost their edge. Clichéd metaphors are unoriginal. Dying metaphors are used so often in everyday speech (which is why they are considered to be ‘dying’) that we rarely notice them any more. In prose, clichéd and dying metaphors show negligent writing. Examples that also include clichéd similes, include:
  • She moved like molasses in January.
  • He ran like the wind.
  • Death was a wall he could not breach.
  • Frank arrived in the nick of time.
  • Living with Alan was like walking on eggshells.
  • It was his skeleton in the closet.
  • Tramps like her were a dime a dozen.
Clichéd metaphors or similes in dialogue are a bit more forgivable, because we expect speech to reflect character (and sometimes our characters speak in casual or common ways). Although the following examples of slang are acceptable, they are still clichéd or dying metaphors (you might think twice about using them, or others like them). In some cases, the comparisons are inferred:
  • “Shut your face!”
  • "Give me a break!
  • “He’s such a jerk!”
  • “You look like the dog’s breakfast.”
  • “Well, look at what the cat dragged in!”
Finally, there are similes and metaphors that just don't work because they are trying too hard. This is the case where the writer wants to be clever, quirky, and/or original in his description. That said, these still might work if they are appropriate to the theme of the story. For example:
  • His fingers flitted like fishes through his wallet.
  • She spouted invectives like Krakatoa. 
  • The shirt over his belly bulged like the sails of a sinking ship. (In this case, I'm not even sure the simile makes sense. Do sails bulge when a ship is sinking?)
  • His face turned as red as a baboon's butt.
One last word on overly clever similes and metaphors: I recently read a story that showed up in the second tier of the On Spec slush (meaning that it was good enough to be passed on by the first reader to be considered by all the other editors for a second look). The piece was very well-crafted, to the point where I would consider the writer a word-smith. The problem was, the description was almost too well done, calling more attention to itself than to the plot. Excellent writing is about excellent judgment, knowing how much of each element is needed to contribute to the whole. In my opinion, story should always trump style.

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