Sunday, January 18, 2015

Stephanie Prichard: Metaphors - How and Why to Use Them

How many times does God use metaphors in the Bible? I don’t know that anyone has ever counted them, but I’d guess the amount is close to the number of the stars. Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but you get my point. He uses them a lot. And as writers, so should we.

Why? Because metaphors carry wallop. They convert a mere word or phrase into something larger—something all-encompassing that incorporates all kinds of images in one quick package. Like the difference between looking at a landscape painting versus opening the window and hearing the birds, smelling the pine trees, feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin, bubbling with joy in your soul—all that in addition to what your sight takes in.

Yep, that’s what metaphors do. Mental … sensual … kinetic … emotional impact, all as fast as the snap of your fingers.

Two examples for illustration: “He had too much paperwork to do” versus “He was drowning in paperwork.” Drowning—how’s that for mental, sensual, kinetic, and emotional impact in one simple word?

The second example: John the Baptist points to Jesus, and instead of saying, “Behold! Our Savior!” he says, “Behold! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Whamo!—the whole history of the Jews and God’s promise wrapped up into one breath-taking metaphor!

So how should we as writers use metaphors? Assuming they’re well-done (I’ve seen some doozies, and have no doubt written a few myself), here are three basic guidelines to ground you.

First, use them sparingly. Your novel is different from poetry and Scripture, which can appropriately and effectively stack metaphors like bricks. Instead, use one metaphor per page at the most. This allows them to be savored. If they pile up on top of each other, they lose their impact and become commonplace, perhaps even ridiculous. I love metaphors, and my critique partner has to keep slapping my hand to keep me to a reasonable limit.

Second, don’t mix them. “I smell a rat but I’ll nip him in the bud.” Eeeek! Stick to one image and its components. Better is “I smell a rat but I’ll cut off its tail” … or “set up a trap”… or “poison its cheese.” Whatever, keep the image ratty.

Third is one that might take some thinking: Make the metaphor appropriate for the point-of-view character expressing it. A man is unlikely to think girly metaphors; a child is unlikely to think adult metaphors.

To illustrate this, I’ll use examples from my novel, Stranded:

Jake is a Marine Corps reservist, so I often use military metaphors for him.
     Adrenaline landed a grenade in every muscle and nerve.

Eve is a federal prosecutor, so courtroom components make up many of her metaphors. Here’s my favorite one:
     She was well acquainted with misery. What was the courtroom, anyway, but a Dumpster filled with damaged and soiled lives that she—like an over-dressed bag lady—sorted through for scraps of justice? And she knew happiness too—it was the court’s constant victim, always stabbed in the back.

Crystal is an eleven-year-old, which challenges me to find metaphors suitable to her age. I sigh when my crit partner asks the question, “Would an eleven-year-old think like this?”
     The coolness invaded her, sucking on her body heat like she was a popsicle.

Betty is sixty-nine; her health, frail.
     Betty choked back a sob. Someone was coming for them. The gaping mouth of the ocean wouldn’t swallow them after all.

With all four characters, I often incorporate metaphors that suit the setting—a large jungle island dotted with beaches and dominated by a volcano.
     Jake could count his ribs protruding like row after row of sand dunes in the fleshless skin of his chest. How many days had he gone without eating?

When you read the Bible, keep an eye out for metaphors and learn from the beautiful artistry of God’s hand. Here’s one of my favorites from Psalm 59:14, 15, that describes David’s enemies:
     At evening they return, They growl like a dog, And go all around the city. They wander up and down for food, And howl if they are not satisfied.

God loves metaphors. So do readers. Two good reasons for us to use them!


Stephanie is an army brat who lived in many countries around the world and loved it. She met her husband at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where she majored in English/Literature. She and Don have lived in Indianapolis, IN, for forty years, and in retirement have turned to co-authoring novels now that their three children are busy raising a beautiful crop of grandchildren for them.

About Stranded:

All Marine Corps reservist Jake Chalmers wants is to give his dying wife a last, romantic cruise to the Philippines. Unable to save her in a mass murder aboard ship, he washes ashore a jungle island, where he discovers three other survivors. Heartbroken that he failed to save his wife, he is determined not to fail these helpless castaways.

Federal prosecutor Eve Eriksson rescues a young girl and her elderly great-aunt from the same ship. They badly need Jake's survival skills, but why is he so maddeningly careful? She needs to hurry home to nail a significant career trial. And, please, before Jake learns her secret that she's responsible for his wife's death.

Stranded: A Novel is available on Amazon for only $2.99.

Other sites:





  1. Very well said, Stephanie. Love this: metaphors carry wallop. You gave me something to think about.

  2. Wonderful, LoRee! Good to hear the article was helpful!

  3. I enjoyed it too. What spoke to me was this: "Like the difference between looking at a landscape painting versus opening the window and hearing the birds, smelling the pine trees, feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin, bubbling with joy in your soul..." So true! A perfect, well-used metaphor does exactly that - it opens the window. Very well said.