The Basics of Metaphors: A Metaphor Is a Bridge

A writer builds concepts metaphor by metaphor. Each metaphor is a bridge leading the reader to more full understanding of whatever the writer is describing. Despite how frequently we use metaphors, however, many writers are confused about the nuances. I’m going to walk you through the finer points of what a metaphor is, isn’t, and can be.

This is the first entry, and it will guide you through the basics of metaphors.

What Is a Metaphor?

Here’s a simple metaphor definition: A metaphor is a direct, non-literal comparison made between two dissimilar objects, actions, or traits.

In plain English: When you describe a person, place, thing, or action as being something else, even though it isn’t actually that “something else,” you’re speaking metaphorically. “He was the black sheep of the family” is a metaphor because he isn’t a sheep and may not even be black. However, we can use this comparison to draw associations between the black sheep and the person: Black sheep are unusual and typically stay away from their herd, and the person you’re describing shares those characteristics.

If the comparison isn’t direct, it’s not a metaphor. If the comparison is literal, it’s not a metaphor. We’ll spend some time clarifying those two points in future entries.

The Metaphor’s Skeleton

Since metaphors are direct comparisons, you’ll commonly find this sentence structure:

Subject + is + metaphoric comparison.

For example, “His heart is a volcano.” “She was a black sheep.” “They were cheeky little monkeys.” “That woman was a wrinkly cow.” “You are the devil.”

While a direct and visible comparison is common to find and easy to spot, we also find direct comparisons made implicitly through substitution. In these cases, the original subject or trait is left out, displaced by the metaphoric comparison: “The cheeky little monkeys came into town last night.” “That wrinkly old cow tried to kiss me.” “The volcano in his chest erupted.”

Metaphors can also be found hidden in active verbs or adjectives. When we say, “Her singing shattered my world,” what we mean is “Her singing’s impact on my mind was shattering to my world.” Similarly, the subjects being described are left out in, “His voice thundered across the room” (his voice’s loudness), “His heart turned black the moment she left” (his emotional pain was a heart turning black), and “She floated along the glass surface of the lake” (the surface of the lake was glass).

In other words, while we are traditionally taught the “subject + is + metaphoric comparison” structure, metaphors come in a variety of types.

Shakespeare Struts His Metaphoric Stuff:
More Metaphor Examples

First, let’s turn to Shakespeare (which is appropriate, as Shakespeare’s scenes each contain two heaping scoops of metaphors). Here are a few famous Shakespearean lines to dissect.

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the sun!

There are three metaphors. The window is not literally the east, Juliet is not literally the sun, and the light isn’t literally breaking anything. This third metaphor is so common that we may overlook it, but as a description of how light interacts with a window, “breaking” isn’t a literal description.

Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles […]

Is fortune literally throwing slings and arrows? No. It’s a metaphor. Are you literally “taking arms” as you struggle in life? No. Another metaphor. Is it literally a “Sea of troubles”? Nope. Metaphor.

Let’s see if you can dissect this third Shakespearean line on your own:

All the world ‘s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

Metaphors have worked their way into the common language, and have become so natural to most people that they aren’t noticed. When we talk about “Eating our words,” having our “hearts broken,” or about someone being the “light of our life,” we’re speaking in metaphors.

To keep practicing with metaphor basics, enjoy the metaphor madlibs exercise.

Move ahead to Metaphor Exercise #1: Metaphor Madlibs