Life is a Beach!

Caneel Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

Metaphor—it’s not just for poems any more. Metaphor is one of those techniques all writers should grab from creative writers to add creative power to their writing.

At its most basic, metaphor is a comparison in image form, and how effective are comparison—and creating an image in your reader’s mind—in making any type of point? A description, an explanation, an argument—all are enriched through comparison and imagery. 

For example, suppose I wanted to convey how devastating it is when a person’s dreams are quashed. I could try to describe the emptiness the person might feel, or the things she would never be able to do, or how others might give up on her. Or, I could use a short, simple metaphor that would capsulize all of those ideas into a vivid image—

A person without a dream is a car with no engine.

That’s a metaphor—A is B, based upon some quality they share. Here are a few more examples:

  • The puppy’s nails were needles vaccinating my arm.
  • Life is a beach.
  • No man is an island (John Donne).
  • I am a rock (Paul Simon).

Metaphors can be written in different forms:

  • The doctor inspected the rash with a vulture’s eye.
  • Scratching at the window with claws of pine, the wind wants in (Imogene Bolls).

We use metaphors in all areas of our lives, often co-opting metaphors from one area to use in another:

  • Sports: play to win, be a good sport, level the playing field, be a team player, home team advantage, out of the ball park, on base, game plan, fumble
  • Business: build a business, watch the bottom line, be lean and mean, balance the books, get a competitive advantage, time is money, career ladder
  • Politics: run for office, tax relief, death panels, fiscal cliff, economic growth, tea party, American dream, pork barrel, mudslinging, grassroots, blank check
  • War: boots on the ground, counterinsurgence, diplomatic effort, firestorm, war zone, no-man’s land, under fire

Beyond being a useful tool for writing, there’s another, even more important reason for using metaphor. According to cognitive linguist George Lakoff of UC Berkeley and philosopher Mark Johnson of the University of Oregon, metaphors “structure our perception and understanding.” Except for the most basic literal events, such as “The cat sat on the mat,” we perceive language conceptually, and metaphorical generalizations occur not at the level of language, but at the basic level of thought.

So we don’t think about love and then search our language to create a metaphor for it. We actually think about love in terms of the conceptual domains (metaphors) it fits into. We connect these domains to create meaning:

  • love as a journey;
  • love as a battlefield;
  • love as a cocoon;
  • love as a black hole.

When we say, “Love is a journey,” we connect the love domain to the journey domain. We understand love in the context of journeys and metaphors emerge—“The relationship isn’t going anywhere. We’re spinning our wheels. Our relationship is off the track,” writes Lakoff.

So using metaphors will help your reader structure his understanding of the concepts you want to promote. Metaphor is smart writing. Share some of your favorite metaphors below…

Bonus–Here is a hilarious video from George Carlin using lots of metaphors to illustrate the differences between baseball and football:george-carlin-1-300x229