A good metaphor is a refreshing breeze on a warm day, while a bad metaphor is like an unpopped kernel in your popcorn. Or, wait, was that second one a simile? Are those even different? WHO KNOWS!? We do, and we’re talking about it in this episode. We discuss how metaphors work, what they’re useful for, and why all similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes. Also a surprising amount of time is spent discussing how a dead person can cry.
Generously transcribed by Abby Woods. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: you’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is Wes and Oren. Our openings are a carrot we dangle before our listeners, hoping they’ll take a bite. And the question I have about that, even though that’s actually a fairly popular metaphor, is, who really wants to eat a carrot that bad?
Oren: I also have questions about how they can eat the carrot. Like, are they allowed to grab it with their hand, or do they have to bob at it?
Wes: All I’m really hearing, Chris, is that you’re calling our listeners rabbits, and I take issue with that. [laughter]
Chris: I think it must be a horse, or a donkey, or something that you dangle a carrot in front of them to get them to move. That gives the word “stick” a new negative connotation that I didn’t want to know about.
Oren: Well, I mean, admittedly, I think I already knew about that, and I didn’t care at all.
Chris: [sarcastic] Oh no. Well, we just lost all our listeners. Thanks, Oren.
Oren: [sarcastic] It’s like this whole thing is a metaphor for my life.[laughter]
Chris: So, we’re talking metaphors and similes, and my first question for discussion is, “Is a simile a metaphor?”
Wes: Yes. End of discussion.
Oren: I don’t know, but people are very mad about it.
Chris: This came up when I wrote a post—“Five Common Problems with Metaphors”—and I used mostly similes in my example, and people got real—there were lots of arguments, fights broke out, there was a whole brawl on Facebook over whether similes counted as metaphors.
I think, at least in America—because, again, things might be taught differently in the UK or other places—the issue is partly that, in grade school, they definitely taught similes and metaphors like they were different things. You use “as” or “like” when it’s a simile; otherwise, if you just say something is something else, like, “our openings are our carrot,” then it’s a metaphor.
But, colloquially, when we talk about metaphors, we’re usually talking about a much broader category of devices that often includes things like analogies. And, similes definitely fall under that.
Oren: Yeah, so I found this amazing definition of metaphors versus similes. This website does acknowledge that a simile is a type of metaphor later on, but, here, when you’re talking about what the difference is, this is a quote, “The difference is subtle, but distinct. For example, if Fitzgerald had written, ‘Good writing is like swimming underwater,’ it would be a simile.”
So, if it was a simile, it would be a simile is kind of what you’re saying? That’s not a distinct difference. You just put an extra word in there! You need to tell me how that makes it different enough to be its own category, other than someone decided it was one.
Chris: I mean, I have to point out that it is a little strange that we call those things two different names. Wes, do you have an opinion on that? Is the distinction of whether we use the word “like” or “as” really that important?
Wes: Okay. So, similes are metaphors.
Chris: We’re just, we’re in the “similes are metaphors” camp.
Wes: The whole point of metaphor is, you’re comparing something to another thing. And a simile does that, too. The point of a metaphor is that the writer isn’t explaining the comparison. It’s just happening. The reader interprets it.
The simile, since it uses “like” or “as,” is basically making that comparison explicit because it’s saying that these two different things are similar. So, it’s really pedantic, but it’s trying to explain itself. When somebody can say the clouds look like cotton candy. Okay. Great. You said, “that thing looks like something that looks very similar to that thing.” It’s a simile, it’s a metaphor. Let’s all go home.
Chris: Yeah. I do think, when it comes to writing, metaphors are more likely to be confusing, especially when you’re writing speculative fiction and maybe the clouds literally are cotton candy. Maybe we’re in a candy land right now and the cows are cotton candy. They just are, and this is not actually an artistic comparison at all, for all we know. And, when I was thinking about what kind of metaphor could I use for opening, it felt like, in order for it to be clear and for it not to be so simile-y, I had to take something that people were familiar with already.
People kind of know a “dangling carrot,” what that means, and that was what enabled it to be clear, whereas, when you’re trying to be creative, it could be more confusing if you use a metaphor, and if you just add one word—“like” or “as”—then it actually makes it a lot clearer what you’re doing.
Wes: Yeah, and that’s really the best way for a crafter of language to clarify things for you. So, similes are just more accessible because the writer wants you to understand the comparison in this way. If you don’t make the simile, the writer is saying, “Interpret this how you want.” And that can lead to all kinds of things.
Oren: Then I need to assimilate the information on my own. Aha!
Chris: Oh no.
Oren: Look, Chris, I barely know what a metaphor is. This is going to be my entire contribution to the podcast.
Wes: I mean, Oren, if it helps, language is basically synesthesia, so all words are metaphors.
Oren: Ahh! All words are fake!
Chris: Mind blown, galaxy brain right there.
Oren: It’s an extremely hot take!
Chris: But yeah, I guess that’s what I would say. If you can use a metaphor and it’s clear, that that’s totally fine, but, especially when you’re opening your story and people don’t know anything about your world yet, a lot of times, similes are just much clearer. and one word is a very small cost for the amount of clarity that they bring to the table.
Oren: Yeah, I would like to know if you’re describing how the eyes of a dragon statue are following the protagonist. I would just like to know if that’s literal, or if you mean that it looks like they’re following this protagonist because of perspective, because it’s a fantasy story! That could be a living dragon statue.
I don’t know, man. I would just like, please tell me. Don’t make me wonder. I mean, unless that’s the mystery, that could work, right? But like, unless you’re doing that on purpose, don’t do it. Only do it on purpose, I guess is what I’m saying.
Chris: Wes, do you think there’s any other distinctions of other kinds of metaphors that we should mention while we’re at it?
Wes: I mean, there are two types of metaphors. There are direct metaphors and there are indirect metaphors, and similes are direct metaphors because you’re basically making the comparison through a direct statement. This one thing is described by stating directly that it is the other, or it is “like” or “as” the other thing.
An indirect metaphor is basically implying that something is like another thing. And that most often comes through with—I would confuse myself by trying to say, “the vehicle or the tenor of the sentence,” I’m not going to do that. The words that you use that convey the metaphor, if it’s an indirect one—in my experience, they kind of happen in verbs.
For example, I have a great line that I quite enjoy from Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and it’s an indirect metaphor. This is when he’s listening to Roderick Usher talk, and the narrator says, “Bending closely over him, I at length drank in the hideous import of his words.” Basically, we’re saying he’s listening, but he’s drinking the words in. It’s an indirect metaphor by basically saying that these words are kind of being compared to a foul wine that he’s consuming.
Oren: He’s listening, but it’s serious business.
Wes: Oh yeah, serious business, but we’re not saying, “I listened to his words, which were like a hideous vintage.” We’re doing more work with the verb by having the verb carry the strength of that metaphor, which is much better, much tighter, more interesting.
Chris: Yeah, that one is surprisingly subtle, actually.
Wes: Yeah, it’s a good one. Especially because “import” kind of has dual meaning cause like “important.” The words are important. But, like, imported French wines, right? It’s a great line. And there’s another one from that story too that is also is an indirect metaphor, where he says, “Sleep came not near my couch—while the hours waned and waned away.”
And, in this, you can interpret that—if you wish—that the hours are being compared to the moon, because the image of a darkening moon—it wanes with increasing darkness, as the story is getting worse, and he can’t sleep because he’s fretting and stuff like that.
Oren: [whispering spookily] Darkness.
Wes: So verbs are a great way to convey indirect metaphors, and at its most basic level, we internalize these indirect verb metaphors a lot. If someone barks orders at you, that’s technically an indirect metaphor, because dogs bark. This gets at my point that, when we really think about it, all words are metaphors. We’ve internalized that so much that we don’t even pick it up as an indirect metaphor.
But again, everything is a metaphor, so it doesn’t really matter.[laughter]
Chris: Reality’s an illusion, buy gold.
Oren: What I’ve learned is that it’s easier for me to see a metaphor that’s not working than to try to figure out the way that they do work, which is to a certain extent, true of most things, but, at least in other forms of storytelling, I have some idea of what makes them work, whereas with metaphors and similes, I feel like I don’t notice them until something is broken.
Wes: Oh, yeah, good point.
Chris: They can have that effect right? Where it subtly blends in and you absorb it and it colors the narration, but we don’t notice until it’s bad, which brings it to, “What makes a good metaphor?” I have a little list here that we can go through.
Oren: [politely] Please do.
Chris: The one that I think people miss the most—and a lot of people get this right—but, when I’ve seen people like, “Oh, that’s a great metaphor,” when I’ve been like, [disgusted] “Eugh, oh,” it usually falls in when it just clashes with the atmosphere or theming or mood of the scene. If you’re going to add imagery that’s not literally there, you should do it for an effect that builds up that atmosphere that you want to create.
For instance, a lot of writers, when they’re writing about a mermaid underwater, they will bring in metaphors that are all sea imagery, like about starfish or seaweed or water or waves, right? It’s like, “Oh, my mood was like the wave over the sand,” or what have you. And it’s just a way of, again, strengthening the theming. And if you’re getting novelty from having a setting that’s underwater, for instance, you really want to bring that to life in your wordcraft as much as possible, and using imagery that matches that theme is one way to do that.
I do have a quote, an example of a very funny situation, which that’s not done. This is from Dawn of Wonder (The Wakening).
Oren: [laughing] The Wakening?
Chris: [laughing] The Wakening. That’s a story to critique. There’s a sequence where somebody says, “’Run!’ He was not a timid man, but the worry beneath his words was thicker than flies in a pigpen.” And this is a situation where it’s tense enough that we have “Run!” with an exclamation point. And then suddenly we’re told to think about flies in a pig pen, right? Where we have this static image of a pig hanging out in a pen and there’s flies circling, and there’s nothing about the scene that says we should be thinking about dirtiness or flies or anything, and it’s a tense situation.
Wes: Yeah, that one is bad. I mean, for the reasons you’ve said, but it’s on that sentence level. It’s placing undue, cognitive burden on the reader to puzzle it out when you should not be doing that right then.
Chris: It’s also sabotaging the pacing.
Wes: Very much, yeah.
Chris: Because, anytime when you have, “Run!” exclamation point, you really shouldn’t have the time to contemplate how his worry is thicker than flies.
Oren: Yeah, that just has more of a comedic bent to it than something that’s supposed to be tense. Flies in the pig pen could either be…I guess it could be gross in the right circumstances, if that’s what you’re going for, but really, it seems more like it’s supposed to be funny to me. Cause pig pens are kind of inherently hilarious.
Chris: So that one I see a lot, and again, if you just think about what mood you’re trying to create, whether you want it to be creepy, think of something creepy. If you want it to be whimsical, think of something whimsical and use that. And it really enhances the mood quite a bit.
Another thing it has to do is, it has to add something. This one is a little more unusual, but the metaphor should give us more information than we had before. For instance, I’ll give another example: “He had electric-blue dyed hair that stuck up on his head, like the tendrils of a startled octopus.” I like that one because it gives us additional ideas about what his hair might look like, right? Okay, we know that it’s stuck up around his head, but if we know it’s like the tendrils of startled octopus, we can imagine that maybe it’s in bigger bunches. Maybe those bunches are curved a bit.
Oren: Maybe there’s eight of them.
Chris: Maybe there’s eight of them! And then we also have the evocative part of it, of a startled octopus right now, where we’ve got that imagery that brings it to life. It’s not just on the nose. “My eyelashes are frozen, like needles.” It doesn’t really give us any additional information that we didn’t already imagine about frozen eyelashes.
Oren: Yeah. And it’s also worth noting that the octopus one is not the way you would describe a character who was about to kill you. The tension, there, is a little lower, cause like if you were describing the big bad that way, as he was about to do something terrible, it would be like, “Oh, hang on, okay, well now he’s a little funny.”
Chris: Run! his words were thicker than the tendral of a startled octopus!
Wes: And I think that is a good use of a simile because the writer really wants us to get that image in their head as close to how they intended it to be visualized, so that’s a good one.
Chris: Yeah, it should basically do something extra and match your atmosphere, but don’t oversell your content. That’s the other thing is, it can use to enhance the atmosphere, but I think there should be some basis, and so I definitely see a lot of metaphors that are used for melodrama. And this is a case where somebody just doesn’t know how to make their scene emotional—and we had a podcast on melodrama—and I think, when that happens and they’re just telling emotion, instead of showing emotion, using a metaphor enables them to tell even more, because now they don’t have to stick to what’s actually happening in the scene.
So, if we have somebody who’s just picking up their mug to take a drink and we want to make it scary, you could say, “The mug glared at them like a frightful monster from the underworld,” or something. Like, okay. But it’s just a mug. And there’s nothing that could be—if we had some psychological horror element, we could build up to something like that.
A lot of the metaphors I see are also, you’re just saying “evil” and “death” here. I actually have one. I think. Here we go. This is one I use a lot: “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…”
This entire metaphor is describing his terror, his feeling of terror. That’s entirely what it represents, and, like, there’s a monster flying overhead in this moment. But like, it’s not very close. It just happens to be flying overhead. And he’s hiding in a bush. And we’re saying “fearful” in our metaphorical description of terror. So, we’re just telling more, but also we’re building up and overselling this moment too much, because nothing much is really happening in the story. And, because we’re using a metaphor, we’re not restricted by what’s happening in the story when trying to make it sound scary, but it feels a little melodramatic because nothing’s happening.
Oren: Also known as the HP Lovecraft problem! You know, a lot of his stories have these metaphors that are just like, okay, nothing is actually happening right now, and you’re just trying to make it sound scary with lots of metaphors, like, “With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome…” And it’s like, alright, but it’s not doing anything. It’s just there. Have it be up to something threatening, and then you can use some metaphors to enhance that.
Chris: Right? If I was picking up my mug that I had a psychological terror of, and I had done something to build up the mug, like, this was the mug that caught the blood of 20 murdered orphans, we could—it’s not that you can’t build up mundane things to feel extra, but that takes more time and care, and a lot of times, what writers are doing is, they’re thinking about, “Okay, how do I make readers feel a lot in this one scene?”
And the answer is to have something meaningful happen that would actually be scary. Not to just dress it up and say it’s super scary.
Wes: Oren bringing up Lovecraft gets to the crux of cosmic horror, but I think a lot of people find that attractive because it’s, oh, these unknowable things. Okay. Sure. But just because we like that maybe they’re unknowable and whatever else they might be that’s not unknowable, you can fall prey to over-describing things in an effort to try to make something out of your unknowable creature.
I remember reading a Lovecraft story, I think it’s called, “The Unnamable.” It’s the most boring thing I’ve ever read because it’s one guy talking to another guy about how he saw a thing, and it was so scary, he couldn’t even name it, so the whole thing is him talking about all the different ways that made him feel, but he just couldn’t name it, so it was the truest horror he’d ever seen. It was so boring.
Oren: [joking] Maybe that was just his therapy session, you know? Just telling the person how it made him feel, you know?
Wes: Yeah, I know. But Chris is right, it’s just fluff at some point. I’d rather hear about pulses quickening or breath drawing and really short—”You’re getting very light-headed from stress.” Things that are happening to the body. That can convey something. And sure, you could maybe use some metaphors for that, but it’s more visceral and that’s always going to be more real than a convoluted—”Your brain is a steel trap spider”—I don’t know, that metaphor lost me.
Chris: Right. The way that I would put this and—both with metaphors and with visceral reactions, like your chest tightening and your heart pounding and all those things—is, think of them as the garnish, and you need the plate of food for the garnish to go on top of. You can’t just have a plate that’s a little garnish on it.
Oren: Just all cilantro.
Chris: Or put, like, tons of garnish. You know, a plate full of parsley—or cilantro, lemon peels, whatever have you—would not be a good meal. It looks great on top of a plate of food. And that plate of food has to be the substance of the story. Substance over style, and then use the style to enhance that.
Wes: That was a classic extended food metaphor to bring that point home. Well done.
Oren: Or, if you don’t like food metaphors—[joking] for some reason, what’s wrong with you—basically, if you want there to be emotion, something emotional has to happen, rather than trying to use increasingly fancy words and metaphors and similes to try to create emotions where there aren’t any.
Chris: I talked about this a little before, but some metaphors just tell their meaning. That one metaphor, “trapped in an iron web as it strained to flee the fearful madness.” Okay, so we have a feeling of terror racing through his mind, that’s trapping his mind as it strains to flee the fearful madness. “A fearful madness” is basically a synonym for terror. We’re just saying it again.
Oren: And it’s like, what’s that supposed to tell me? Is that supposed to tell me that HE is trying to flee, but he feels frozen with fear? Or is the fear its own thing, trying to escape him now? I don’t know.
Chris: Right. And again, naming emotions is a sign of trouble. If you feel the need to name a lot of emotions—like there are some situations where you do need to name them, but usually you should be able to show that instead of telling it. Similarly, if you were just to say something is, “pale as white flowers,” that would be very silly. Cause you just said the flowers are white. So, you might as well just say the thing is white. Saying it’s as pale as something white is not…
Oren: “As dark as ink that is black.”
Chris: Yep! Merely the precise color of black ink. I think that was from…?
Oren: Yep, that was from… What was that?
Chris: City of Bones. Same one that I got the, “electric-blue dyed hair with tendrils of a startled octopus.” Same book. Everybody has some good stuff, and some bad.
Oren: Some of them land, some of them don’t. But on the other hand, bad metaphors are endlessly entertaining. I’ve gotten no end of entertainment, talking about that one metaphor from A City in the Middle of the Night, about how something smelled, “like a dead woman’s tears,” which is just like. The most, perfectly bad metaphor, because it’s just…it brings the whole section to a stop as you’re just like, what?
What do a dead woman’s tears smell like? How do you know that? Are they different from the tears of a living person? Is gender important? How is a dead woman crying, or are these tears from when she was alive? And, every time you try to figure it out, it just goes deeper. It’s like the ultimate bad metaphor. It feels like it was on purpose, intentionally getting me to stop reading and think about this weird metaphor for about ten minutes.
Chris: Right? I mean, that’s the thing. Having them feel bizarre or off the wall or just… What are you trying to communicate? Or, if the metaphor is so different from what you’re describing that you just can’t see how those things are correlated…
Again, from the same book as the dead woman’s tears, and we’re talking about City in the Middle of the Night, which just has tons of metaphors throughout, so lots of them are very wild, and it has some good ones too, but it’s great for examples because they’re all over the place. It has one that’s like, “standing like the silhouette of an upturned knife,” or something, and it’s just—okay, we’re comparing a shape of a standing woman to a knife. And I’m just not really sure what I’m supposed to get from that, because those things seem totally different. I’ve also seen the uncanny valley ones.
Oren: Really? What does that mean?
Chris: Okay, so this is also from Dawn of Wonder (The Wakening)—
Oren: Ooh, the Wakening!
Chris: [laughing] The Wakening! “The squirreled fled across the branch, disappearing up the walnut trunk and into a knothole as if drawn by a string.” And it’s just kind of uncanny. If this was supposed to be creepy and uncanny, that would be one thing, but the squirrel is literally just fleeing into a knothole and a trunk.
But, if it was drawn by a string, it would have a smooth, gliding motion instead of a scurrying motion. And that’s just kind of uncanny, right? The thing that the metaphor adds is something that is an unnatural movement for this animal, as opposed to— Here’s a comparison I have on my metaphor posts, which is better.
This is from the translation of The Witcher: “Their horses, decked out in flowing black caparisons, flew over the barricades like specters.” They’re not literally flying, but, in this case, we know that they’re jumping, so that’s similar to flying, and since they have these black caparisons that are flowing, we can see how they would look like specters. And so it’s not as uncanny valley as imagining a squirrel somehow being pulled by a string when it’s actually running and scurrying away.
Oren: Although, it is worth noting that that metaphor working does depend on you knowing what a caparison is, and I think there’s a good chance that a lot of readers aren’t going to know what that is. And, certainly, it’s not like you have to expect the reader to know every word you use, but I guess if you’re using it in a metaphor to try to create imagery, if the reader has to stop and go look up what that means, the metaphor probably didn’t have the goal you intended.
Chris: Yeah, probably, although I do think that the context in here is pretty helpful, cause it says they’re decked out in flowing black caparisons, so we know that they can flow.
Oren: Okay, fair enough.
Chris: And we know that they’re decked out in them, so like, if they’re not wizard robes for horses—which is basically what they are—you can imagine that they’re like, a flag or something, right? Or a banner, cause it’s flowing.
Wes: Yeah, but the point that I see here is, you don’t need to know that because it’s all good. They’ve got the outfits on the horses, and then we’ve got our nice indirect metaphor with, “the horses flew,” and then the writer says, and just to be clear, so you definitely understand what this looks like, here’s a simile.
Chris: Right. “They flew over the barricades,” that’s an indirect metaphor, and then, “like specters,” and there’s our simile.
Wes: Yeah, yeah, exactly. All that lead up is tantalizing, tantalizing, cool image. And then the writer says, you have to understand exactly how this looks. Here’s a simile. Which is fine, but I think that’s a good example of it in action, right?
Oren: Well, you know what? I’ve been outvoted. I’ll stop horsing around and move on.
Chris: I mean, last week, I’d say, ideally, your metaphors are not mixed. Although, I think that sometimes people become a little more pedantic about this than necessary. How close can two metaphors get to each other before it’s a mixed metaphor? Like, are they allowed to coexist in the same paragraph?
Oren: I have no idea.
Wes: I think it’s an issue if you are still trying to convey the same concept, perhaps, or just, the information is like, I began with a food metaphor, but I ended with a football metaphor, but it’s still on the same topic. That just bothers me because there’s no reason why it can’t be the same extended metaphor, and you’re putting more of a cognitive burden on your reader.
Chris: That’s fair. If you can make it the same metaphor, you probably should. I do have an example. One that did bother me that was mixed metaphor from Battlefield Earth is, “Char turned on him like a tank zeroing in on its prey.”
Oren: Ah. Do tanks do that? [sarcastically] Hmm.
Chris: It’s just like, the tank with the prey. It’s just, yeah. Can we just…
Oren: It’s like, I would normally describe a tank zeroing in on its prey like some kind of predator, because that’s not a thing that tanks literally do, right? They don’t actually eat the things that they’re hunting. Not yet, anyways.
Wes: I also don’t think of a tank as a predator. It’s a heavily-armored, slow weapon. It’s not a jaguar. Like, you know, it’s not stalking prey. It’s just slowly blowing things up.
Chris: I mean, I think that, if we were actually narrating a battle scene with tanks, we could potentially use a metaphor as, you know, a predator for the tanks in the scene. We could make that work in some way, shape, or form, depending on what predator we’re using in the situation. “Tank” is already a metaphor for Char, who is turning on him, so saying the tank is zeroing in on its prey… That’s the entire metaphor. You could just say “target” instead of “prey,” right?
Wes: That would be better, yeah.
Oren: Alright, well, now that we’ve learned the ins and outs of tank metaphors, I think this is going to be a good place to call the show. Those of you home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First. We have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. Talk to you next week![closing theme]
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