What is Metaphor and How to Write One?

This post covers metaphors comprehensively. It explains metaphors and their two categories (explicit and implied), how they can make your writing compelling, step-by-step way to write them, and common mistakes to avoid while writing them.

What is metaphor?

A metaphor is a figure of speech of comparison which says that two unlike things are one and the same. Unlike simile, which too is a figure of speech of comparison that say that one thing is like another, a metaphor says that one thing is same as another. Metaphor, like simile and analogy, improves our understanding of a less-known thing by comparing it with a well-known thing, highlighting the common message between the two. And it usually brings all of this out through a be verb:

Life is a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs.

(The unlike thing being compared to has been underlined in all the metaphors for ease of following.)

Notice the be verb, is. The metaphor doesn’t say that life is like a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs; it says life is a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs. (However, that’s not literally true; that’s figurative language, which is a way of seeing things in a new way.) In other words, metaphors are direct; they don’t beat around the bush like similes do. This element of directness is actually visible in the meaning of word metaphor, which finds its roots in Greek words meta meaning ‘over, beyond’ and pherein meaning ‘to transfer’: transfer the meaning of one to another.

Also note that an abstract or less-known thing, life, has been compared with a concrete or well-known thing, a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs, to explain the abstract thing, highlighting the common message of ups and downs.

If we add like to the be verb, we create a simile:

Life is like a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs.

More resources on metaphor:

Why use metaphors?

Metaphors paint a vivid picture of the primary thing (also called tenor), life, by comparing it with an unlike thing (also called vehicle), a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs. It kind of produces a word-picture that makes your writing easier to understand and fun to read. And they often do so in fewer words than literal language: try explaining life’s ups and downs without a metaphor and see how many words it consumes.

Here is a comparison of a metaphorical sentence with its regular version to drive home the contrast. (Comments are in square brackets.)

Amazon is a big company and a tough competitor in retail.

Amazon is a 1000-pound gorilla in retail.

Novak Djokovic beat Nadal in 2021 French Open Men’s Singles semi-final in a one-sided match.

Novak Djokovic pummelled Nadal in 2021 French Open Men’s Singles semi-final. [Comment: This is an implied metaphor, which doesn’t use be verb. It means Djokovic was a boxer who pummelled Nadal. More on this later in the post.]

Do you see how the metaphoric version, the second of the pair of sentences, creates visual images, conveying meaning more vividly than the literal version and in fewer words?

To give an example of how metaphors can grab attention, a political leader said that bureaucrats pick our [politicians’] slippers. It was widely covered in the media because, apparently, people took it literally. In reality, in my opinion, she used a metaphor to say that bureaucrats do what politicians say, which in fact she adds later.

Another example is of Priyanka Chopra, an actress, who said, “I built myself to be a survivor, to be a street dog”. That’s a metaphor (I’m a street dog) for toughening up in a cut-throat industry. The metaphor part made the headline. Why? Because it’s catchy. It attracts eyeballs. That’s what metaphors can do to your writing.

The above two also show how we all use metaphors in our day-to-day lives without even realizing.

Let’s get into the thick of things. For the purpose of understanding metaphors, we can divide them into two broad types: explicit metaphors and implied metaphors.

Explicit vs. Implied metaphors

In explicit metaphors, both the things being compared are clearly mentioned, and we don’t need to infer anything. In contrast, in implied metaphors, only one of the two things being compared is clearly mentioned; the other thing needs to be inferred from the specific words in the sentence:

When it comes to finishing a marathon, I’m a dog after a bone. [Explicit metaphor]

He barked expletives for no reason. [Implied metaphor]

In the first, an explicit metaphor, both the things being compared are mentioned – I and dog. In the second, an implied metaphor, only one of the things being compared is mentioned – he. The verb barked suggests (suggests because it’s not explicitly mentioned) that he is being compared to a dog. Implied metaphors, when written simplistically, are essentially explicit metaphors. The above implied metaphor can in fact be rewritten as:

He is a dog who barked expletives for no reason. [Explicit metaphor comparing he and dog]

But here implied metaphor is more compact and impactful and hence preferable.

Are you surprised that an implied metaphor can be simplified to an explicit metaphor? You shouldn’t be because even implied metaphors have to follow the definition of metaphors: one thing is another thing. And that’s why we got ‘he was a dog’. You can actually use simplifying as a test to check if your implied metaphor has been written correctly.

Another one to understand the difference between explicit and implied metaphors:

When I stepped out to bat, I walked straight into a cauldron. [Implied metaphor. You’ve to infer that the stadium was a cauldron.]

When I entered the stadium to bat, I walked straight into a cauldron. [This is no longer implied since both the things being compared – stadium and cauldron – have been mentioned.]

With that out of the gate, let’s dive into each of them in detail.

1. Explicit metaphors [2 types]

As you’ve seen, explicit metaphors clearly mention the two unlike things being compared. Explicit metaphors usually come with be verb, but that’s not always the case. Here, we’ll see explicit metaphors with be verbs and with non-be verbs.

1.1 Explicit metaphors with be verb

This is the easiest, and hence the most common, way to write metaphors. We in fact started this post with a metaphor of this type: Life is a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs. In such metaphors, we say:

A is B

Here A and B are two unlike things being compared.

More metaphors of this type:

My niece is a little devil.

Talking to him is a fool’s errand.

Doodling is the brooding of the mind. Saul Steinberg

Notice ‘A is B’ pattern.

Explicit metaphors in appositive form are essentially an offshoot of above pattern

Here is one:

After three hours of journey, we reached lake Tahoe, a heaven.

(Appositives rename a noun, and they usually follow the noun they’re renaming. Here, a heaven is an appositive.)

Here, the traveller compares lake Tahoe with heaven through an appositive. Since appositives are essentially a replacement for the noun they rename, lake Tahoe and heaven are one and the same. In other words, we can say, lake Tahoe is heaven. Remember, ‘A is B’ needs to hold for it to be a metaphor?

Is following appositive a metaphor?

Mac, a spoilt kid, regularly misses school.

No.

The alleged metaphor is: Mac is a spoilt kid. But there is little metaphoric about it. Where are two unlike things like lake Tahoe and heaven?

1.2 Explicit metaphors without be verb

We can explicitly compare two unlike things without a be verb. Note the verbs become, remind, and realize in the three sentences below.

He becomes a beast on getting the ball. He runs through the defence and often scores a goal.

[Both the things being compared are clearly mentioned (he and beast); hence it’s an explicit metaphor. Second, note that becomes essentially means that he is a beast, which needs to be the case for something to qualify as a metaphor. Third, without the second sentence, the metaphor won’t be clear. So, metaphors may come with explanation if required.]

Her singing reminds me of a cart coming downhill with the brake on. Thomas Beecham

[Both the things being compared are clearly mentioned: her singing and cart coming downhill with the brake on. Also, they’re one and the same: her singing is the sound of a cart coming downhill with the brake on.]

Initially we thought Covid would be short-lived, but then we realized an ice age is setting in.

[Both the things being compared are clearly mentioned: duration of Covid and duration of ice age. Also, they’re one and the same: The period Covid will last is how long ice age lasted. Just a reminder, metaphors can’t be taken literally. They’re a way of saying things.]

The main point in the above three is that both the things being compared are clearly mentioned (and hence are explicit metaphors) and that each of them satisfies the definition of a metaphor (one thing is another).

2. Implied metaphors [3 types]

As you’ve seen, implied metaphors mention only one of the two unlike things being compared, and the second thing has to be inferred from the specific words in the sentence. Because they’re more challenging to write than explicit metaphors, let’s take them in detail.

In implied metaphors, often a single word (remember, barked?) suggests comparison of two unlike things. Such words can be verbs, adjectives, or nouns.

2.1. Verbs

Have a look at this:

He spewed intolerable abuses.

Only one of the two unlike things being compared, he, is mentioned. The other is implied in the verb spew. Spew compares the way he uttered those abuses with the way large quantity of liquid or gas comes out from an outlet (please see the meaning of spew). Like we saw earlier, this metaphor can be simplified to an explicit metaphor:

He [is a volcano that] spewed intolerable abuses.

So, the implied meaning of our original metaphor is: he is a volcano. Do you see that the two things are very unlike; that’s what we saw in case of explicit metaphors?

More metaphors implied by verb:

Novak Djokovic pummelled Nadal in 2021 French Open Men’s Singles semi-final.

Novak Djokovic [is a boxer who] pummelled Nadal in 2021 French Open Men’s Singles semi-final.

The house cried for upkeep as it was last painted seven years ago.

The house [is a person who] cried for upkeep as it was last painted seven years ago.

The verb in each of these sentences converts a regular sentence into a metaphor. The last one is an example of personification, a figure of speech that lends human characteristics to non-humans or abstract things. Personifications are essentially implied metaphors. They convert to following form:

XYZ [is a person who] …

You can replace XYZ with any non-human or abstraction.

Note that all the above metaphors can be simplified to ‘one thing is another thing’, with the two things being unlike.

2.2. Adjectives

Consider this:

Nothing could escape his hawk eyes.

Only one of the two unlike things being compared, his eyes, is mentioned. The other is implied in the adjective hawk. Hawk compares the eyes of a person with the eyes of a hawk, two unlike things, to paint a word-picture and tell in fewer words how sharp the person’s vision is. This metaphor can be simplified to an explicit metaphor:

His eyes are hawk eyes. Or

He has eyes of a hawk.

More metaphors implied by adjective:

I’ve seen few people with dynamite temper like his. [His temper is dynamite.]

The policeman’s penetrating eyes made a quick assessment of the crime scene. [Policeman’s eyes are X-ray.]

Just an adjective converts these sentences into metaphors.

Note that all the above metaphors can be simplified to ‘one thing is another thing’, with the two things being unlike.

2.3. Nouns

Have a look at this:

The company had a black eye while trying to defend its dubious track record on user privacy.

Only one of the two unlike things being compared, company, is mentioned. The other is implied in the adjective black eye. The noun phrase black eye implies that the company is a person who has been hit on the eye. This metaphor can be simplified to an explicit metaphor:

The company [is a person who] had a black eye while trying to defend its dubious track record on user privacy.

(Note: Since we’re discussing implied metaphors, I’ve excluded nouns used as metaphors in explicit metaphors, like in I was a fish out of water when I didn’t have a smartphone for two days.)

More metaphors implied by noun:

He has ice in his veins. [His blood is ice.]

You’re sitting on a goldmine. [The thing (say antique items) you’re sitting on is goldmine.]

Just a noun converts these sentences into metaphors.

Note that all the above metaphors can be simplified to ‘one thing is another thing’, with the two things being unlike.

How to write metaphors?

Let’s take this through the metaphor we started this post with:

Life is a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs.

Step 1: Decide tenor

For any figure of speech of comparison, we start with tenor, the primary thing you want to convey. In this case, tenor is life, about which you want to convey your thoughts.

Step 2: Think of a vehicle

Aristotle, a master at metaphors, considered ‘an eye for resemblance’ as the key to write good metaphors.

Identify the vehicle, the thing you’ll compare your tenor with. In this case, vehicle is a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs. Your vehicle should fulfil two conditions to make a good metaphor: first, it should be quite unlike the tenor (life vs. roller coaster); second, it should share the message you want to convey about the tenor (ups and downs). Obvious comparisons (sun and ball of fire) make for uninteresting metaphors.

This step is the crux. If you get it right, you’ve a great metaphor on hand.

Step 3: Write it out

While explicit metaphors aren’t that difficult, implied metaphors can be challenging.

For implied – if you noticed the metaphors we covered earlier – the verbs, adjectives, and nouns are poles apart from their regular replacement: spew vs. shout, pummel vs. beat, dynamite vs. volatile, goldmine vs. antiques, and so on. They evoke image of a completely unlike thing. Think on that line.

Let your metaphors do more for your writing than just style

You can make your metaphors more impressive by conveying more information through them. Look how the second version in each set packs in more into the metaphor. Such expansion would also make your metaphors melt into your composition seamlessly.

Life is a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs.

Life is a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs, teaching us vital lessons in survival along the way, especially during downs.

Amazon is a 1000-pound gorilla in retail.

Amazon is a 1000-pound gorilla in retail, often accused of using its vast scale and volumes of data to stifle competition.

Dos and don’ts in writing metaphors

1. Pick metaphors depending on the meaning you want to convey

Look at the following metaphors on refrigerator:

My refrigerator, a graveyard of expired foods, needs a thorough cleaning.

My refrigerator, a confectionery storehouse, is a happy hunting ground for visitors.

My refrigerator, a beer shop boasting assortment of flavors, eagerly awaits me when I return home tired.

(Note that all three are explicit metaphors using appositives.)

Different metaphors can drive different meanings. Pick your metaphor accordingly.

2. Avoid overused metaphors

Some metaphors were novel once, but overuse killed them. Avoid used-to-death metaphors like these:

She’s an angel.

He is a lion in the field.

Be original. Create striking contrast between unlike things. The above metaphors can be improved into:

She is a wild animal that cares for a young one of another species.

When on field, he is a warrior scything through enemies.

3. Not all be verbs make metaphors

Is this sentence metaphorical?

Future is foggy.

It’s not. I’ve seen beginners making such mistakes. Such constructions with be verb confuse people as they look quite similar to metaphors with be verb. For such sentences, you don’t even need to look at what constitutes a metaphor.

What is future being compared to here? Foggy, right?

But foggy isn’t a noun (it’s an adjective) which can be compared to another noun, future. For any metaphor or simile, the comparison should be between two similar parts of speech. You can call this test zero that precedes testing through the definition of a metaphor.

Another way of conducting test zero is to try writing a simile out of the suspected metaphor and see what you get makes sense. If you convert the above sentence into a simile, you get:

The future is like foggy.

Future can be like night or dog or human being or even a rock, but it can’t be like foggy. This is the case because we’re comparing a noun with an adjective.

This, however, is a metaphor:

The future is fog.

4. Explain the metaphor if necessary

Will your audience understand this metaphor?

Jack is a star in his school.

Unless you’re writing for an audience who knows Jack well, the meaning of this metaphor won’t be clear. A little explanation can make it clear why Jack is a star.

Jack is a star in his school. He is good in not only academics but also sports.

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