To Metaphor Or Not To Metaphor

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines metaphor as follows: “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money).”

Metaphors serve two basic functions: First, they convey elements of stories or poems in ways that almost any reader can relate with. Second, they add poetic depth that makes reading more enjoyable and more memorable.

In William Shakespere’s “Hamlet,” the lead character delivers the famous “To be, or not to be” monologue (universally known as Hamlet’s Soliloquy) which is replete with metaphors.

Here’s the first, and most famous, segment:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–
No more–and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–
To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

In their literal sense, “slings and arrows” are weapons of war; however, The Bard uses them as metaphors for the difficulties in our lives. Indeed, the remainder of that opening sentence considers that we might “take up arms against a sea of troubles,” meaning we can go to war against life’s problems and possible win out.

Why not just name real life troubles instead of using the “slings and arrows” metaphor? Simple, since we are all familiar with the concept of war and the agonies war presents, the use of war to represent our daily struggles magnifies those troubles in a way and to a degree that naming actual problems would never reach. Further, by using his weaponry metaphor, Shakespeare turns daily troubles into enemies and the universal us into warriors – Basically, he suggests that we are all in this together; we fight a common enemy: Our “sea of troubles.”

The next sentence presents another metaphor: “sleep” to represent death. The death metaphor is actually prefaced with the words “To die,” which set up the rest of the metaphor: “to sleep – no more – and by a sleep we say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

In other words, when we die we no longer sleep in the usual sense, but in death’s sleep our troubles are over: “we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to.”

The death metaphor continues with “To die, to sleep – To sleep – perchance to dream…”

This is where sleep (death) is pondered, Hamlet wondering whether death is in fact all that final?

The death metaphor closes with “For in that sleep of death what dreams may comewhen we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.” Here we reach a conundrum: Although death will end our mortal troubles, the unknown that comes after death might be even worse.

Two powerful metaphors, weaponry to represent our troubles and sleep to represent death, allow just 117 words to make our troubles and the solutions to them far more powerful than any direct discussion of individual troubles could be. These metaphors serve as poetic elements that add depth to the situation and make it more enjoyable to read than standard prose.

Seriously, would you prefer Shakespeare’s presentation or this:

To exist or not, that’s the question:
Whether it’s better to shut up and take it
When you get parking tickets
And someone cuts in line at the store,
Or get angry and start beating people up.

Weaving metaphors into your prose and poetry will not only help your writing become more vivid, it will do so in fewer, more powerful words that add poetic depth.  Hamlet’s soliloquy also comes with a bonus: Alliteration. The use of all those “s” words in the following passage adds additional depth along with a smoother reading experience:

“… suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.”

Putting metaphor to work in your own writing is actually quite simple. All it takes is a little imagination to see everyday things as something else: life as seasons, a person as a car, a book as a person… And if you’re a creative writer we can assume that you’ve got plenty of imagination.

Let’s compose a few sentences and see how metaphor might help to make them more powerful.

Basic sentence: My marriage ended.
Metaphorical: The sun set on my marriage.

Basic sentence: The page of equations looked like a jumble to me.
Metaphorical: A sea of equations churned before me.

Basic sentence: She seemed nearly invisible.
Metaphorical: She’d become a ghost.

These are just a few examples to illustrate how common sentences can be made more vivid and rich through the use of metaphor.

Be careful, though. Metaphor is a powerful tool that can be overdone. Including metaphor in every sentence or even every paragraph or page could water down their effectiveness (metaphor intended). Better to stick with one metaphor throughout a piece than confuse things with too many.

True, our Hamlet example used two metaphors, but those two were used to convey a tightly connected concept: Is it better to fight against our troubles or to die? “To be or not to be?”

Although you can certainly get by without using metaphors, why would you want to? Consider how memorable those lines from Hamlet are, even if you can’t recite them verbatim. The recognizable nature of Shakespeare’s metaphorical images make this soliloquy both easy to relate to and memorable. Aren’t those qualities you hope comes through in your work?

In my experience, creative writers who avoid metaphors in their work tend either to not fully grasp the concept or have difficulty creating good metaphors. If this is you, trust me; you’ll get there. It’s all a matter of practice and studying the use of metaphors in other work.

A clever metaphor is no substitute for good story, however.  Just because you’ve got a metaphor that no one on the planet has ever considered, doesn’t mean your story or poem will work. But a well thought out and placed metaphor can definitely enrich an already solid piece of writing.

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About Bill Weiss

Bill Weiss is a creative and freelance writer and founder of the Writerspark creative writing group.
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