simple metaphor tool

woolIt’s easy to come up with metaphors, but do they work? Let’s try.


Make two separate lists of words and word-groups. On the left, list tangible things that easily spring to mind. Now cover it while you work on the second list (or your brain, if it’s anything like mine, will try to cheat by making concepts that suit the terms you’ll be borrowing). On the right hand side, list intangible things and complex ideas.

It’s good if your tangible things are also very visual, by the way. Of course imagery can incorporate concepts, sounds and smells, but let’s go with visual for now.

Try not to ‘intend’ anything; the point is to try to surprise yourself when it comes to matching terms to ideas.

An example:

kitten ambition
tin whistle attraction
sock drawer political expediency
wool togetherness
hinge the art world
termite politics
shark suburban life
bus old age
castle preventive medicine
Siamese twins marriage
pebble envy
cellophane solitude
chocolate summer
onion death
zipper hesitation

When you’ve got your two lists, read across the page and try to find links between them.

Can ambition be represented by a kitten? It’s hard to know, so let’s see:

The kitten of his ambition toyed with the wool ball of her… Oh, crikey. That’s dreadful.

Still, I’m thinking there could be a link if I use ‘ambition’ to mean ‘desire to pursue romantically’.

He found himself studying her wool as she jerked another length out to knit with. The ball danced in his vision, tantalisingly out of reach. He wanted to grasp it, to stop her knitting, but instead he only mewed: ‘I want you.’

There’s a kitten there, surely. And ambition. And also (another word in the list!) a ball of wool. So I’d say I’ve been somewhat successful, wouldn’t you?

What can you come up with out of my list words or some of your own?

It’s fine to jump around each list, by the way. There’s no need to feel you absolutely have to stick to reading across the page, though I have to admit, ‘tin whistle of attraction’ might have something going for it.

But what can you do?

metaphor and tone

bridgeAnyone can make a metaphor. We do it all the time. For instance, we say things like ‘I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it’ when we want to delay handling an issue, or ‘muddying the water’ when someone is trying to complicate an argument.

Metaphors borrow something tangible or easily understood to represent something intangible or difficult to express. Of course there has to be some thread of commonality — some sense in which this ‘borrowing’ is able to supply meaning.

For instance, you can’t successfully speak of ‘the orange rind of peace’, because there’s no  way in which the peel of a round orange fruit can be used to express harmonious coexistence.

By contrast, ‘the mouse of peace’ does have a germ of usefulness. But I don’t suggest you attempt to use ‘the mouse of peace’ as a literary metaphor, because ‘peace’ is a concept that draws its power from the great seriousness of war, while mice are small and prone to form plagues. On the other hand your intention might be comical, in which case go ahead. (Collapsing ‘levels’ like this — pairing the ridiculous with the sublime — is a staple of comic writing.)

Remember, when crafting a metaphor, it pays not to be too obvious. For instance, speaking of ‘mouse of peace’:

‘The crowd’s roar turned to a soft squeak after McCap finished his speech. Gradually figures began to scurry back into their tenement holes, leaving McCap on the podium feeling like an unhungry cat.’

Did you gain the sense there were mice in that place? I did, even though ‘mouse’ wasn’t used. In fact I felt positively overrun.

Carrying a metaphor over several phrases or sentences creates an ‘extended’ metaphor; but it’s easy to overdo. In the above paragraph so many indicators point to ‘mice’ that a reader can feel like jumping on a chair. But you can always prune some of the mouse-related terms out:

‘The crowd’s roar quietened after McCap’s speech. Gradually figures began to scurry away from the podium, leaving McCap feeling like an unhungry cat.’

Crafting metaphors in subtle ways is fun, a bit like playing peek-a-boo with ideas. Show too much, and the whole thing collapses under its own weight. Show too little, and the metaphor doesn’t have any effect at all. But show just enough and the reader ‘sees’ things in a fresh way.

And best of all there’s no muddying the water!

what is a metaphor, and why use it?

‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.’fox

If I said this looking at a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog I’d merely be reporting.

If I said it looking at a clever and witty young politician belittling the tired ramblings of her older opponent, I’d be speaking in metaphor.

The literal sentence is not necessarily more true than the foxy one. But the quick brown fox image causes the reader’s mind to linger, because its literal meaning must be unravelled from the picture.

Vitally, the metaphor provides a clear ‘picture’ in the mind, and thereby simplifies the task of description. Anyone who wants to say ‘a clever and witty young politician belittling the tired ramblings of her older opponent’ probably deserves being called a tired rambler also. But there goes that quick brown fox again! Jump, jump, jump. It’s made the leap over and over in the same amount of time.

And that’s why metaphors work. Because they’re fast, they’re flashy, and they linger in the mind — and because when you ‘get’ the underlying meaning, you always feel clever.

See more:

metaphor & tone

simple metaphor tool

sensory writing

Did I mean sensory, or sensual? In essence, both. I’m talking about concrete ways to make a work more sense-aware as well as making its characters (and setting) seem more ‘real’. It’s also about learning to describe perceptions.

Smells like a rose?

For instance, how does a rose really smell? A rose is a rose is a rose. But some mornings it smells like watermelon. Other times, like velvet on a peach. When you tell the reader an object smells like something they hadn’t expected, you create a link that lingers (just like an aroma) in the mind.


Let’s imagine we want to set a story in a roundhouse during the middle ages.

Roundhouses were made of wattle (a method of weaving sticks between uprights) and daub covered over by masses of thatch. They were called ’roundhouses’ because a circular array of poles supported the rafters. Thus the wattle-and-daub (mud) wall was merely the shelter while the structure was visible as a series of poles circling the space inside.roughweave

But while knowing the above is necessary for being able to describe a roundhouse, it doesn’t necessarily place a reader ‘in’ there. And we want that immersion, right? So in this exercise you need to think and write sensorily.

Using past experiences, what do you think it would be like to close your eyes and stand in the middle of the roundhouse (not on the hearth, mind!) smelling and ‘feeling’ the environment? Do this in your mind or jot down single phrases or words to capture the feeling.

Doing this, I get: smoky; dingy; vaulted; muffled; stew-smelling; earthy; cavernous; and so forth.

Using your word-list as inspiration, write a paragraph describing what it’s like to enter the roundhouse for the first time.


using the senses to extrapolate

We all use our senses, some of us differently or in more limited ways than others.

noseThe point of this post (and associated exercises) is to develop a more ‘writerly’ approach to sense-thinking. It’s about harvesting the information that is at your disposal in order to convey what isn’t. This can help make your settings and events as well as characters feel more ‘real’.

I’ve said before that novel writing is 10% experience and 90% extrapolative invention. Of course, if you’ve lived through an earthquake, you probably don’t need to do much extrapolating.

But perhaps you were a bit too busy thinking of surviving to pay attention to details, or perhaps like me you were out of town when the earthquake hit.

So how do you write in-the-moment (that is, sensorily) about something you’ve never lived through?

– you can research — of course. Researching an event is an important way to gain insight. However often this is distant insight — useful for overview, but not so useful when writing from the perspective of a character in the moment being described.

– you can experience similar (presumably lesser) things and extrapolate.

Having only lived through my share of noteworthy events, I’m a big fan of extrapolation.

So what sorts of things am I talking about ‘extrapolating’ from?

If you’ve ever slid down crumbling scree or fallen off a moving object you have some experience with which to begin to imagine the earth shaking and ground moving. How about being on a train or bus that suddenly stopped?

If you’ve ever hit your knuckles hard, you’ve got some clue of what it might feel like to have one’s fingers chopped off or stomped on by a boot. That is, you don’t know how either of the latter feel, but you’ve some idea how it might.

If you’ve ever loved or been loved (requitedly or unrequitedly), you can imagine how to write anything from romance to adoring (or losing) a child.

A fight scene can be rendered more ‘real’ if you can remember and write how it felt to fall, take a knock, or lash out at something.

So how do you turn these remembered sensations into something bigger-picture or more gripping? In large part that’s the wordcraft business. To do this more effectively, look at my other posts on writing from the senses and metaphor.

Meanwhile, it can help to jot down a list of memorable experience you’ve had, and try to write at least 3 words or phrases that sum up the sensations or emotions involved. Be as glib as you like; for instance you might sum up the end of an affair like this:

shock — rejection — loss.

Those are three flat, unimaginative words, right? But now we can turn them into equivalent physical sensations to make them seem more graphic, so they might linger in the mind of the reader. Emotions can be described via physical movements as well as sensations.

For ‘shock’ you could think along the lines of how your body felt during a shocking moment: chilly; numb extremities; tingling; tight-lipped; dry-mouthed. Was there a lightning (hot or cold) flood through the limbs or a jabbing in the temples?

For ‘rejection’ you might describe sensations of shrinking or shrivelling; protective flinching; hot-headedness; dizziness; acridity in the mouth; bile or another bad taste. You might slouch; you might cringe; you might stare helplessly into space.

For ‘loss’, you might feel your clothes have become too big; you might grasp at things; you might feel hollow-stomached; you might continually look for something that isn’t there, or drop a hand onto the seat beside you frequently.

Whatever you describe, putting emotions into physical terms, if you can do so without resorting to cliché (‘pain in the heart’) will help them seem more ‘real’, while paying attention to how your senses work means you’re in a better state to write any situation realistically.

Just be careful if you decide to fall off a bicycle down a hill of scree for ‘research’.

two-word character creation

The way to do this is to begin by looking at what film people call a ‘pitch’, or short punchy paragraphs used to sell the idea for films. Pitches are good to examine for the purposes of writing because they employ as few words as possible to sum up the conflicts hindering a character, and also hinting at that character’s journey.

Usually in a pitch the description of the character is no more than two words, the first being an adjective relating to personality, a vital physical characteristic or general outlook, the second a noun drawn from a verb (that is, a word describing the person’s job, main activity or chief interest).

Thus we could have a woebeggone archaeologist, an embittered principal, a jaded writer, a talking pumpkin… whatever.

Of course there’s a major art to getting the character to mesh in somehow (or clash with?) the theme. But that’s another story. Right now I’m just talking about coming up with ‘tags’ you can use to begin to flesh out your characters from scratch. After all, sometimes all we have to start with are words.

What I propose you do is make two separate lists along the lines above, then pick a word from each to be your character summary. The first list will be adjectives that have some relation to mood, personality or an important (which is to say, thematically connected) physical attribute; the second list will be all ‘doing’ words, or rather ‘doer’ words.

However as we’ll see later, not all personality traits or professions or pursuits promise much conflict to come. Still, here are some lists off the top of my head:

nerdy archaeologist
witty high jumper
boastful clown
hopeful obstetrician
pretentious stockbroker
logical princess
empathic ex-soldier
homely translator
successful pig farmer
brilliant deserter
deceitful politician
damaged demon (why not?)
romantic card sharper
disabled lion tamer
clownish tax official
uptight husband
washed out medium
abandoned gold digger
driven dog trainer
snappish tightrope walker
sensitive chess player
credulous accountant
obedient romance writer
sex-starved sculptor
hygienic madam
churlish pastrycook
deluded warden

Huh, I just realised ‘deceitful’ is next to ‘politician’. That was entirely happenstance, believe it or not!

The next step is to pair one of these ‘doer’ terms with a word from the list of personal traits. Unfortunately some just don’t work, do they?

‘Romantic romance writer’, for instance, is not particularly going to jump off the page. There’s no core conflict; no sense of a mismatch or lack. Another ridiculous example would be ‘clownish clown’. But what about ‘churlish romance writer’? Or ‘washed-out demon’?

Of course this exercise is more of a start-up one than a true character creation tool. And it must be underscored that the success of it depends in large part on finding new and unusual combinations of character traits. Genre and theme will almost certainly dictate the character’s social role, chief interest, corporeal state or profession.


selfish characterisation

Selfish? Pardon. I meant ‘based on oneself’.

Virtually all writers, I’m going to argue, use their own experiences, thoughts and perceptions to guide character.

No, this doesn’t mean they write about themselves; not at all. It simply means that the only way we have to comprehend and therefore write about human perceptions is to think and feel them ourselves. Let’s call that 10% of the process. The other 90% is, of course, extrapolative invention.

I’ve never had a broken leg or fallen out of an aeroplane. But I’ve hurt my toe and fallen off a horse. I’ve seeing the giddy wheee! of scenery blurring past and felt the crunch of iron-hard ground. The rest, I suspect, is internet research.

The beauty of having a self — an embodiment — is that you’re your own best information gathering device. The other beauty is that you can use this information to make even borrowed or stolen characters seem ‘real’. Selfish writing lives on the page because it gives the sense of an actual person, not a cypher.

Of course, you may not want ‘true’ characters, or even particularly lifelike ones. Your work might be subverting the idea of psychological realism, or playing with stock characters as a kind of sport. Your novel might be comedic or metaphysical. One size character-strategy doesn’t fit all.

But you can do worse than pay attention to being alive.


Using the senses.

Sensory writing.

stealing characters

Stop! Thief!Stealing characters is practically a time-honoured profession. Firstly there’s real life. These are the people we’re closest to: workmates; children; sweethearts. And haven’t we all based characters on ourselves?

Then there are tropes we can borrow or pinch. Holmes is a trope-character, because he’s been recreated and borrowed so many times.

However, there are rules to both borrowing and stealing. With borrowing you say to the reader: ‘Hey, look! This is a character you already know!’ Sherlock Holmes might be homosexual or aspergersy in your fiction, but you’re always displaying your library card.

Stealing is more underhanded. The idea is to change details and traits in order to make a known character less recognisable. There’s a continuum to this, of course. One one end — we’ll call this the ‘lazy’ or ‘slack stealing’ end — a writer changes a few basic details, a bit like giving a wanted man a false moustache and haircut. Anyone who looks closely can see the similiarity, but perhaps they won’t look. At the other end, practically everything except your core idea of the character’s personality is altered to suit your work. This can produce a revolution in characterisation. What do you factor in to create this new setting and set of ideas? What do you import from Sherlock and what do you jettison?

None of this is really stealing, of course. Arguably it’s just accessing a lineage of characterisations: Sherlock himself evolved out of an ancestry including Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. But whether you import a trope-character blatantly or discreetly, it’s what you change and why that matters.

So steal away, if you wish! Just make sure you either spell out your homage — or camouflage it to the point where only you notice!

characters & persuasion

The main character of Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a wilting wallflower whose brief early romance was nipped in the bud. With nail-biting anguish Anne watches as her former lover becomes an eligible bachelor courted by all.

While Captain Wentworth’s deepest character remains elusive for much of the book, her own character is a superb mixture of unappreciated loyalty and constant desire to please. Thus she embodies constancy in the face of abandonment: rejected by a vain parent; loving but undemanding as a person; feeling the full weight of rejection in all aspects.

What makes her story so profoundly engaging is not only the complete tie-in between characterisation, plot and themes. It’s that somehow Austen manages to make Anne a real-seeming person, not a cypher. She represents thematic qualities even as she exists in her daily life and navigates its complexity. Thus the core of Anne’s characterisation — her endurance through neglect and heartache — gives the story its great depth and meaning, while the daily workings of her intelligence inside this fluctuating world make it seem true.

Persuasion, abandonment, constancy, suffering — and reversal.