Writing

Five Common Problems With Metaphors

A silhouetted city on an alien world.

Charlie Jane Anders's The City in the Middle of the Night is filled with metaphors that vary wildly.

Metaphors are strongly associated with beautiful prose, so many writers work to include them in their narration. However, not all metaphors are equal. Bad metaphors can detract from prose as much as good metaphors can enhance it. Let’s go over what you should avoid when adding one.

1. Sounding Bizarre

Metaphors aren’t just pretty-sounding words. Like any other part of the narration, they should communicate something to readers. Unfortunately, some writers work so hard to make their metaphors interesting and creative that they sound like gobbledygook.

The Hugo-nominated novel The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders, has lots of metaphors, so it’s a great source of examples. In this excerpt, the first-person narrator, Sophie, describes her skin color with a metaphor.

Our skins, hers cloud-pale and mine the same shade as wild strawflowers, almost touch.

While “cloud-pale” makes sense, strawflowers come in a variety of bright colors, including white, yellow, magenta, and red. None of these seem like skin tones. A reader who’s unfamiliar with strawflowers might guess her skin is the color of straw, but then the “flower” part is unnecessarily confusing. It’s hard to say what Anders means here.

Let’s look at another example from the same book. Sophie says this about seeing her crush dressed up for a nice party.

She stands in the doorway, the silhouette of an upward-pointing knife, and smiles back at me.

What does Anders want readers to get out of this image? An upward-pointing knife would have a pointy tip, right? This woman doesn’t have a pointy head, does she?

As a positive example, let’s look at an excerpt from Christopher Paolini’s Eragon. I know, I’m actually praising Eragon. Paolini’s writing has many weaknesses, but he does well with metaphors.

Grimly he burned one section after another until there was a ring of fire, a half-league across, around the ambush site. The flames looked like a molten crown resting on the forest.

In this example, the metaphor gives readers a flavorful visual for what’s happening in the scene that intuitively fits what’s being described. A ring of fire and a molten crown are easy to correlate.

2. Clashing With the Scene’s Atmosphere

Using a metaphor gives you the freedom to break away from what’s literally in the scene and invoke something that’s not. Readers will imagine the subject of your metaphor, and whatever mood it has will be added to the scene.

Unfortunately, some writers focus so hard on finding a metaphor that accurately describes what’s in the scene that they ignore the subjective feeling it provides.

Take this excerpt from City of Bones, in which author Cassandra Clare is trying to create a creepy tone.

Around her neck was a thick silver chain, on which hung a dark red pendant the size of a baby’s fist.

Why is she evoking a baby fist in her dark nightclub scene? Comparing the pendant to an eye would be much better for the tone she wants.

Let’s look at an example from Jonathan Renshaw’s Dawn of Wonder: The Awakening. This is meant as a tense scene where an adult is telling the younger characters to flee.

“Run!”

He was not a timid man, but the worry beneath his words was thicker than flies in a pig pen.

Imagining flies in a pig pen is not helping the tension here.

For a positive comparison, we once again return to Eragon! Paolini introduces some warrior elf riders, and it’s clear he wants them to feel graceful and magical, like Tolkien elves. He uses metaphors appropriate to this purpose.

Three white horses with riders cantered toward the ambush, their heads held high and proud, their coats rippling in the moonlight like liquid silver.

On the first horse was an elf with pointed ears and elegantly slanted eyebrows. His build was slim but strong, like a rapier.

Rippling like liquid silver and being slim but strong like a rapier matches the mood Paolini wants to create.

3. Falling into the Uncanny Valley

Words come with subtle but important associations. The dictionary is unlikely to specify that words like “vibrate” and “assimilate” have mechanical or science fiction connotations, but they still don’t belong in an epic fantasy. Similarly, metaphors can be subtly off, creating an impression that doesn’t quite fit the events that are unfolding.

Going back to the metaphor-rich The City in the Middle of the Night, Anders uses a strange metaphor to describe Sophie’s feelings.

Seeing Bianca depressed makes me feel soft inside, like my bones are chalk.

When people discuss feeling soft inside, they are usually describing feelings that are vaguely located in the gut or chest region. Technically feelings don’t live there either, but internal sensations reflecting emotions, like having butterflies in the stomach or the heart racing, are felt there. Instead, Anders is likening it to fragile bones. It’s head-scratching to imagine Sophie getting crumbly bones when she feels bad.

Another example is this excerpt from Dawn of Wonder. In the book’s opening, a weird thing happens in the forest, and it scares the animals.

For the squirrel, this was warning enough. It fled across the branch, disappearing up the walnut trunk and into a knot hole as if drawn by a string.

Renshaw is using this metaphor to emphasize how the squirrel quickly flees into the knot hole, but the impression it creates is off. Things with legs bound when they run; they do not smoothly glide along like they are being pulled.

For a positive example, let’s look at a metaphor in The Blood of Elves, part of The Witcher book series by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Their horses, decked out in flowing black caparisons, flew over the barricades like spectres.

The horses are not literally flying here, but the comparison is appropriate because they are jumping over something. With their caparisons, which are basically wizard robes for horses, it’s easy to imagine how they might look like spectres.

The first two examples are using metaphors close to the readers’ impression of what was happening, but they don’t quite match. That’s why the images clash, falling into the strange “uncanny valley” space. Sapkowski uses a metaphor that differs significantly from the literal events of the story, but it has enough in common to add something.

4. Adding Nothing

Every part of the narration should add meaning, including metaphors. If you can take the metaphor out and no information is lost, something needs to go. Otherwise, the metaphor will only add clutter and make the narration sound silly.

Take this humorous example from City of Bones, where a character’s hair color is compared to ink, but the color of that ink is also specified.

She was beautiful, for a human—long hair nearly the precise color of black ink.

Let’s take another example from The City in the Middle of the Night. In this one, Sophie is traveling through a frigid area.

My eyelashes turn solid, like needles, and my lips freeze.

Comparing stiff eyelashes to needles is so on the nose that it doesn’t communicate anything the reader doesn’t already know. It’s possible Anders wanted the needle image for atmosphere, but outward-facing needles don’t convey tactile prickliness, and a visual of needles doesn’t match the icy scene.

In contrast, let’s look at a positive example from City of Bones. This is how Clare describes a mysterious and attractive boy at the club.

He had electric blue dyed hair that stuck up around his head like the tendrils of a startled octopus.

This metaphor adds a lot to the description. Readers might imagine that his hair is in bunches about as thick as a tentacle or that those bunches have a waviness or curve to them. It also makes his hair feel alive.

5. Creating Melodrama

Storytellers are always looking for quick ways to make their scenes pack more emotional punch. When a scene is falling flat, they can be tempted into using nonliteral literary devices like metaphors to exaggerate what’s happening. This can quickly become melodramatic.

In The Sword of Shannara, this happens after the character Flick sees a scary creature flying overhead.

A sudden feeling of terror raced through Flick’s mind, trapping it in an iron web as it strained to flee the fearful madness penetrating inward.

Calm down, Flick! This situation is a little scary, but it’s not like you’re facing down an elder god. If your mind is trapped in an iron web for a creature that’s not even attacking, how will you top that when the situation is serious?

Take this other example from James Dashner’s The Maze Runner.

He groaned in frustration; his echo amplified through the air, like the haunted moan of death.

Repackaging a groan of frustration into a moan of death is making a mountain out of a molehill.

Metaphors are the most in danger of sounding melodramatic when they represent how a character feels, particularly if the character is scared or upset. Simply focusing on the scary creature instead is a significant improvement. Take this except from H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Book.”

The centuried, tottering houses on both sides seemed alive with a fresh and morbid malignity—as if some hitherto closed channel of evil understanding had abruptly been opened.

This may still come off as purple, but it’s better because it focuses on the things that are supposed to be creepy instead of the feelings of the protagonist.

The next step is removing the portions that are telling. Instead of using words like “fear” and “evil,” show why something is scary. Take this other example from Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls.”

My ears gave me the last fading impression of the scurrying; which had retreated still downward, far underneath this deepest of sub-cellars till it seemed as if the whole cliff below were riddled with questing rats.

This makes a strong impression without melodrama.


If you put in a metaphor for the sake of a metaphor, it may not turn out so well. Metaphors should inform readers, create evocative visuals, and enhance the atmosphere of the scene.

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Comments

  1. El Suscriptor Justiciero

    Speaking of purple prose, do you all have any plans to write any “Lessons From the Terrible Writing” article about the Eye of Argon in the near future?

    • Chris Winkle

      I haven’t done that one because it’s been talked about so much. I’m not sure I’ll be adding anything that hasn’t been said a lot elsewhere. But if people would like me to cover it, I could do that.

  2. Mystery

    Some of your examples are similes, not metaphors, so “Five common problems with description” would have been a better title for this article.

    “The flames looked like a molten crown resting on the forest.”
    “His build was slim but strong, like a rapier.”
    “…like the tendrils of a startled octopus.“
    “The centuried, tottering houses on both sides seemed alive with a fresh and morbid malignity—as if some hitherto closed channel of evil understanding had abruptly been opened.”

    • Beth

      Hey, Mystery – it’s a common misunderstanding thanks to how it’s often taught, but a simile is a type of metaphor. The title is accurate.

      • Mystery

        I didn’t know that. Thanks.

        • Maria

          Well, maybe it’s a translation thing, but I was also taught that a metaphor is an implicit, rather than an explicit connection. “She was the black sheep of our family” as opposed to “she was like a black sheep among white sheep”. I guess it’s a technical thing, but it would be nice to have a universal convention.

          • Stephen

            I came to mention the simile/metaphor thing too, and I am also pretty certain that similes and metaphors are different for the reason Maria says. I’ve done a search and I’m looking right now at definitions given by Grammarly, Dictionary.com, Wikipedia, Britannica, Cambridge English Dictionary, and Merriam-Webster. While the wording is clearer in some than in others, they all indicate that similes would be excluded from the definition of metaphor because they aren’t using the metaphorical term in the place of what is being referred to.

          • Beth

            Stephen (whom there is no link to reply to..?) The Cambridge English Dictionary listings for both metaphor and simile make no such indication – it states that a metaphor is ‘an expression that describes a person or object by referring to something that is considered to possess similar characteristics’, which applies equally well to a simile as to a metaphor classic. See also the Oxford Companion to English Language, which explicitly states similes as a form of metaphor.

            Ultimately some (non-Wikipedian) sources such as Britannica disagree, but I’d guess that this is due to a newer shift in understanding which has dropped the nuance. Older sources such as the Oxford Companion reflect the traditional understanding of a metaphor as seen in the title of this article, which is by no means incorrect or inaccurate.

          • Maria

            I am not going to argue English terminology, because I would be way out of my depth. But I am curious if there is a name for the thing I am taking about. Say “she was the black sheep of the family” and “she was like a black sheep among white ones” are both metaphors, the latter is a simile, what would the first one be called?

          • Maria

            …for context, in my latin-language, a metaphor is explicitly defined as a simile from which the particle (“like” “as”) has been eliminated. The substitution/analogy, as opposed to the explicit comparison is understood to be what makes a metaphor. This is by no means a modern change (the French Larousse uses this definitio as well). This is why I said it might be a lost-in-translation issue :).

          • SunlessNick

            That’s usually how it’s taught in English too. But we don’t really have a good general word to cover similes, metaphors and allusions – and they have mostly the same uses and issues in storytelling – so we might as well promote one of them to be used generally, in which case metaphor is the one most people know.

          • Beth

            Ah, that’s interesting! I’m coming from an Anglospheric point of view, though I do think in English that there’s been a changing tide in how metaphors and similes are viewed. It’s difficult to say for certain.

  3. Raillery

    This was a fun post. With all the books the Mythcreants team must read, I imagine they keep a leader board of bad metaphors.

    There’s also a good bad example at the beginning of Small Gods in which a rocket ship is used a metaphor, which was quite jarring and immersion-breaking in a supernatural-laden fantasy book.

  4. SunlessNick

    Haunted Moan of Death sounds like an album title. Probably not a very good album, from a band that’s trying too hard, but still.

    Something else a metaphor can do is characterise the person who thinks of it. I haven’t read City of Bones, but I presume the startled octopus line is in a close perspective, which would mean it’s a comparison the protagonist herself is making, and gives her an air of the whimsical.

    • Cay Reet

      I don’t know … there’s some Scandinavian Metal bands I know who could absolutely pull off a good album called ‘Haunted Moan of Death’.

      • Ace of Hearts

        Ha! Sounds like an Insomnium album. Love that band.

  5. LeeEsq

    A really good way to get a sense of good minimalist writing is too read some of the literary authors from the early 20th century, especially the period between World War I and War World II. Even if you don’t like the subject matter of the books or find them politically and socially problematic, they knew how to write. Mid-20th century mystery writers are another good source of instruction on how to write well.

    • Rose Embolism

      CHAPTER 1

      He stood on the porch of the hacienda, watching the sun sink into the Carribean. More people should write like Hemingway, he thought. Hemingway was a strong writer. A no-nonsense writer. A minimalist’s minimalist writer. There would be no similes or metaphors in good Hemmingway pastiche. No unnecessary descriptive words. Because he was a man’s writer. The ice in his fogcutter clinked. He took a drink and watched the sun set.

      CHAPTER 2

  6. Bellis

    Oh wow, I love the chalky bones metaphor! It doesn’t fit with my association of feeling “soft”, more like fragile, brittle or vulnerable, but it fits the situation. Or it could fit depending on broader circumstances (haven’t read the book).

  7. Charlotte

    I remember having trouble with parts of Three Parts Dead and the rest of the Craft Sequence because it’s a fantastical world, and at times I couldn’t tell if certain descriptions were metaphor or literal depictions of magic that was happening! Not sure if that falls into any of the above categories.

  8. G. K.

    Just when I think 2020 can’t get any stranger, Chris praises Eragon. I don’t think i can process this right now, I need some time alone.

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