Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mastering the Metaphor

The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor – Aristotle

Metaphor Definition: A metaphor is a figure of speech containing an implied comparison, in which a word or phrase ordinarily and primarily used of one thing is applied to another.  A metaphor is distinct from, but related to a simile, which is also a comparison. The primary difference is that a simile uses the word like or as to compare two things, while a metaphor simply suggests that the dissimilar things are the same. 
When spot-on, well written metaphors and similes add a level of interest to words on a page. They make the character, action, or event become more alive, more real. Through comparison, writers are able to evoke a more visceral reaction from their readers and engage them on an emotional level – creating more powerful writing.
… he was thinking she was holding what was left of him in her little soap-weathered hands, blowing on him like tinder she was trying to keep alight.   – Robert ClarkMr. White’s Confession”
Outstanding metaphors and similes always catch my attention.  In fact, when I read one I particularly like, I’ll jot it down – in the hope that one day the ability to write suitable metaphors will somehow rub off on me. 
Then he rose, bobbing heavily, steadily upward, like wreckage surfacing on the sea…and shambled to the door, his body moving as if in two unsynchronized halves, a donkey cart with mismatched wheels. – Robert ClarkMr. White’s Confession”
For years, I have compiled a list of extraordinary metaphors and similes when I find them.  Most novels include a few skillfully executed comparisons, but never have I found so many well written comparisons as I discovered while reading “Mr. White’s Confession,” by Seattle author Robert Clark.  I underlined passages, scribbled in the margins and turned down page corner after page corner in an effort to return to his descriptive words – sometimes two or even three gems to a page.
Then the icebox clicked on with a sound like pigeons chortling and settled into a pulsing drone of rheumy, brittle metal.  – Robert ClarkMr. White’s Confession”
Mr. White’s Confession,” is a gritty tale of good and evil populated with sympathetic characters and suspenseful action.  The novel was awarded both the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award for Fiction and the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1999. 
Robert Clark has written a book that is instantly familiar and continually surprising, a meditation on memory, love, and loss wrapped in the wrinkled suit of a classic American genre.  James Lileks, Minneapolis Star-Tribune (Another brilliant metaphor, by the way.)
The story, set in 1939 St. Paul Minnesota, centers on the death of a beautiful dime-a-dance girl and the search for her killer by Police Lieutenant Wesley Horner, a lonely widower.  The chief suspect is Herbert White, a strange looking and peculiar-acting man who suffers from a type of amnesia and whose hobby is photographing beautiful women.  Horner’s case is compromised when a malevolent member of the police force sets out to frame Mr. White and threatens to expose Horner’s budding relationship with an under-aged girl. 
He pulled on his hat brim again, and the brim angled down in line with his long, fierce nose, his incredulous chin, the landslide of his face.  Smoke spumed from his nostrils like water from a sluice. – Robert ClarkMr. White’s Confession”
Perfectly placed, thoughtfully pertinent, and precisely written, Clark’s metaphors add depth to his descriptions of actions, characters, and emotions.  One after another drew me in, giving pause while pictures materialized in my mind.  I felt more like I was watching a movie than reading a book.    

I had met the strange Mr. White:
He sat, balding and rotund, on his stool, like an egg in an eggcup.
... White – who Wesley had told her was big as a shithouse and as weird as toadstools …  
 She could only see him … befuddled, blinking at the world like a mole with his first pair of glasses. 
A guy like White could be standing in the right place at the wrong time and have a murder charge fall onto his head like bird shit into his hair …
I had seen Carla Marie’s body:                    
In the violet dawn light of Saturday morning, her red hair was deep as blue neon, and her skin was silvery white, except at the bottom of her body, where the blood had settled and colored her scarlet and brown and copper green.
Nash knelt again and drew his finger over the crimson and lavender arc that ran around her neck. 

A garter stay, unsheathed from her stocking, luffed like a ship’s pennant and slapped her leg. 

I had felt Wesley’s pain:
That was rich, now that he was picking his brains up off the floor like pieces of broken mirror, a dumb cop with no more smarts than a cabbage.

But he saw it made absolutely no difference what he did, that causes and effects about which Wesley had no say-so had been laid down like ties and rails and he was on a runaway train highballing down them.
Wesley sat at his desk thinking these things, or rather letting them settle onto him like a coat he was accustomed to wear …

 Crafting great metaphors takes patience – but if you take the time, the impact you add to your writing will be worth your effort as you increase your ability to evoke images, sights and sounds that engage your reader on an emotional level.  Check out more details about the seven steps to writing a metaphor at

How to Write a Metaphor in 7 Steps

1.  Know what a metaphor is and study a few examples.

2.  Think imaginatively about what you're trying to describe. What characteristics does it have? What does it do? How does it make you feel? Does it have a smell or taste? Brainstorm – think outside the box.

3.  Free-associate.

4.  Decide what kind of mood you’d like to set.

5.  Run with it. Write a few sentences, a paragraph, or a page to see where your comparisons take you. 

6.  Read everything aloud.

7. Transform your comparisons into metaphors.

Below, I’ve included a few more of my favorite metaphors and similes from Clark’s masterful pen. I hope they inspire you to sprinkle a few more of them throughout your writing.
… and the cigarette pack lay on the oyster-tiled floor and even as they were leaving began to unknot itself with an imperceptible rustle of cellophane, green and writing like a rupturing cocoon.
The clock glowed Palmolive green on the nightstand, and once a minute, the big hand thunked ahead. 
… and the big radio with a façade that looked like the society people’s Presbyterian church on Summit Avenue
… he pictured the waitress – that spinster Clara, the one whose brother lost a leg working in the Soo Line yards – coming by with her face screwed up like a sour, wrung-out washrag and saying, “Coffee for you and your daughter
Farrell leaned his insolent, stilt-skinny ass on Wesley’s desk.  “So?” he said.

The frost was settling into the road with the deepening nightfall, and the gravel rang like broken glass under their feet.

The first weeds and grasses were coming up amid the mud, thin and straggly like the wisps of a baby’s hair.
…the house was abrim with the smell of roast turkey, like butter folded into smoking gold.
Robert Clark Biography
(Condensed from
Seattle writer Robert Clark was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and did graduate study in Medieval Studies at the University of London.  Following a career as a freelance journalist and editor specializing in travel, food, and wine; he wrote his first book, “The Solace of Food: A Life of James Beard.”  His other non-fiction books include River of the West, a chronicle of the Columbia River, and My Grandfather’s House, a memoir that was named a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in biography.

Clark is the author of four novels: In the Deep Midwinter; Lives of the Artists; Love Among the Ruins, a double BookSense 76 pick in both hardcover and paper; and Mr. White’s Confession, which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel as well as the PNBA Award. It is currently in pre-production as a motion picture by James B. Harris, producer and collaborator of the late Stanley Kubrick.

Clark lives in Seattle with his wife, Caroline, and children, Tessa and Andrew. He teaches fiction and non-fiction writing at universities, conferences, and workshops. Most recently, he was a Guggenheim fellow and is currently working on a book of memoir/essays.


Jennifer Rova said...

I learned from this post. Thanks, Mary Jane. I liked your tips and examples. I am not good at metaphors and often sit at my computer, deadline imitating a Damoclean sword, and my brain stagnating like water in a clogged drain. Practice help as do many things in writing.

Mary Jane Honegger said...

Great metaphors describing how inept you are at writing metaphors, Jennifer. As Shakespeare would say, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."