Drowning in a sea of grief, or really sad. Over the moon or quite pleased. While each of these sets of descriptors say the same thing, the metaphors just paint a better picture. The definition of a metaphor according to your dictionary is “a figure of speech containing an implied comparison, in which a word or phrase ordinarily and primarily used of one thing is applied to another.” As in the examples above, metaphors are a way of describing something or infusing meaning without weighing down text with adjective-heavy sentences.

Metaphors are prolific through our speech and our writing. They are one of the most common literary tools to convey meaning. Technical writer Sabina Idler helps us look under the hood of the common metaphor, “Metaphors consist of two parts: a vehicle and a tenor. The vehicle is a concept that we are familiar with. The tenor is the concept to which the metaphor is applied. Because of visual, functional, or structural similarities, we can transfer our knowledge about the vehicle to the tenor and consequently make sense of this unfamiliar concept.” According to Richard Nordquist there are many different types of metaphor, if you’d like to really get into the nuts and bolts of it you can check out the full list here.

The great thing about metaphors is that they make the reader do some of the work, inviting them to apply themselves in interpreting the meaning. Putting a piece of themselves in the story with their own imagination. Not only does it draw a piece of the reader in, it gives a way to describe difficult concepts like feelings and sensations. James Grant explains in his blog post on the topic, “We need metaphor. Without it, many truths would be inexpressible and unknowable. Describing how things appear to our senses is also thought to require metaphor, as when we speak of the silken sound of a harp, the warm colours of a Titian, and the bold or jolly flavour of a wine.“

But it is possible to overdo it. People use metaphors in everyday life so often that we don’t even notice. When used too frequently certain metaphors lose their effect like ‘the time flew’ or ‘the ball is in your court’. Shivana Deo from Writer’s Edit believes that, “Overused metaphors lose their intended effect as they no longer require the use of imagination.”

It seems the power of the metaphor is in the creative and unique ways ‘vehicles’ are coupled with ‘tenors’, this is how the use of imagination is ignited. This is where I believe we each have a unique angle to approach metaphor from. Depending on your background, experiences, education or life events you can bring something different to the vehicle you select to describe the tenor. In the same way people who make drastic career changes always bring fresh new perspectives to their new fields.

Emanuel Derman physicist turned Managing Director on Wall Street is one such example. And this ability to bring new insight to a subject is something he is acutely aware of. In his writing Emanuel described this very ability in German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who compared life to finances. “Schopenhauer describes that, at birth you receive a loan – consciousness and light borrowed from the void, leaving an absence in the emptiness.  Nightly, by yielding temporarily to the darkness of sleep, you restore some of the emptiness and keep the absence from growing limitlessly. Finally you must pay back the principal, make the void complete again, and return the life originally lent you. By focusing on the common periodic nature of both sleep and interest payments, Schopenhauer extends the metaphor of a loan to life itself.  The principal is life and consciousness, and death is the final repayment. Along the way, sleep is the periodic little death that keeps the borrower solvent.”

Emanuel goes on to so eloquently explain that, “Good metaphors are expansive; they compare something we don’t understand (sleep), to something we think we do (finance). They let you see in a new light both the object of interest and the substrate you rest it on, and enlighten upwards and downwards.”

Inspired by Emanuel’s explanation of Schopenhauer and his unlikely pairing of vehicle and tenor, it made me think how we can all consciously employ unique metaphor in our storytelling:


1 – Tune in for cliché’s. In order to embed stronger metaphors into your writing, you must first start noticing where you are using common place, less effective ones.


2 – Tap into your full depth. Brainstorm some options before settling on your metaphor. Really stretch yourself in selecting your vehicle, look into other aspects of your knowledge or experiences that are not immediately obvious.


3 – Be brave. Just because you haven’t heard something described a certain way before doesn’t mean it is wrong – it more likely means you have found a unique, and therefore, powerful metaphor.


4 – don’t overdo it. Sometimes one solid metaphor can extend through large blocks of text and this consistency can be much stronger that multiple disparate metaphors stacked close together.


5 – Have fun with it! If you have had fun writing it, your audience are more likely to find it engaging.


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