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Exercise: Metaphor

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Patricia Johnson
Posted on: 25 Feb 2001
Reposted on: 17 Feb 2002
Reposted on: 28 Feb 2005
Reposted on: 2 Jul 2006

Metaphor expresses an abstract quality by comparing one thing or idea to another thing or idea. The point of using metaphor is to increase understanding in an original and effective way. It involves the writer's ability to creatively perceive her/his world. Metaphors have existed as long as advanced language, and perhaps before language in our minds.

Metaphor implies it is actually the thing or idea, not that it is merely like the thing or idea. Two images are woven into a single cloth (oops, was that a metaphor?). Metaphor compares without using the words 'like' and 'as' that we find in most similes. Do not confuse symbolism with metaphor. An object may symbolize themes in the story, as in John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent where a spiraled shell is used as a repeated symbol of relationships and human needs.

In metaphor the comparisons may be shockingly different, surprising, often pleasant, and revealing. A good metaphor is original and fresh. It does not have to explain itself. A good metaphor is closer to understatement than to exaggeration. In order for the metaphor to work, no matter how abstract, it must be on target and truthful without being too farfetched. It must also avoid cliché and overused comparisons. Sometimes an author will extend a metaphoric idea with many variances within a single story or poem.

Here are some examples of metaphors:

  • Carl Sandburg's poem about fog uses the metaphor: 'fog creeps in on little cat feet'. This conveys silence and stealth, the eerie way that fog suddenly surrounds everything without making a sound. Notice the metaphor does not use like or as.
  • Elizabeth Bishop's poem Armadillo uses this metaphor to describe a baby rabbit: 'so soft!-a handful of intangible ash/ with fixed, ignited eyes.'
  • Sandra McPherson in Alleys uses this metaphor to describe the first flower she picked for her husband: 'It is/ Not even a withered flower anymore,/ But the dust of the first thing I did for him.'

Exercise: In 300 words or less create a scene, or rewrite an existing scene to include at least one metaphor. Make sure the metaphor adds to the story without intruding. You may use more than one metaphor, but since this can be tricky, one will suffice.

Patricia Johnson's wrap-up
Posted on: February 24, 2002

Hello Everyone,

The discussion comments on metaphor this week reveal that metaphor involves thought in writing as well as in critiquing. It was a difficult exercise that everyone handled very well. The critiques were excellent. The metaphors were also.

Metaphors were present in the stories in different ways, some were extraneous to the central idea of the story, while others were important to the story's main theme. Both are acceptable. Some of the metaphors bordered on symbolism. There were extended metaphors and mixed metaphors in some stories.

Many writers mentioned how hard it was to find the metaphors in the submissions. I found this to be true sometimes. Practice and trusting one's abilities helps. Look for the central theme and see what ideas and images tie into it. It may help to read the Jane Eyre review (see the end of this page for this URL and a list of other helpful sites).

In my own story I ended up with a very mixed metaphor for sound and nostalgia which did not come across well. I failed to make a clear, concise metaphor, but I had fun trying. To paraphrase one critiquer, metaphors need to have the right characteristics to work.

I hope next time you use metaphor it will be easier. Practice does help! Thanks to each of you for a great metaphor workshop.

Pat Johnson

Here is a repost of metaphor helps from the discussion this week.

Using metaphor in creative writing: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/print/general/gl_metaphor.html

Here's one of William Shakespeare's most famous sonnets, find the metaphors! http://library.thinkquest.org/J0112392/metaphorclassics.html?tqskip1=1&tqtime=0222

Bartleby's in-depth study of metaphor http://www.bartleby.com/116/305.html

What about verbs as metaphors? This site has some interesting examples of verbs. It has grouped metaphors into categories. http://knowgramming.com/metaphors/metaphor_chapters/examples.htm .

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.