The Shortest Distance Between Two Points is a Metaphor

One size doesn't fit all


in Beyond Words


We commonly think of metaphor as a poetic device but it is used in fiction, too, and saves miles of unnecessary words. Metaphor can leap from the desk at which you are writing to darkest Africa or Dante’s hell or your grandmother who died 50 years ago. It leaps tall buildings in a single bound. It can tie the end of the universe to the beginning of the universe. And all you have to do is compare something with something else.

But in fiction, metaphor should be to the point and relatively brief. A novel in which everything becomes something else stretches credulity and grows tiresome. Yawningly tiresome. The reader has come to your story, novel, or poem to find something out. She has not come to it to play word games.

Metaphors are related to analogies. You probably already know that a metaphor places one thing alongside another, making the claim that these two things are the same in some respect. It does this without using the warning words “like” and “as.”

My husband is a night owl is a metaphor. My husband is not actually an owl but he stays up late as owls do. The sound of my dog’s paws on the wood floor is music to my ears. It is not, of course, actually music, but I enjoy the sound so much I think of it as music. The sound of my dog’s paws on the wood floor makes my heart dance. The third example is not only a metaphor but omits the cliché of “music to my ears.”

Similes are comparisons that use the word “like” and “as,” stating the comparison outright. With her red hair, she looked like a match that had been struck, for example. He was thin as a rail or as thin as a rail (some metaphors are cliché and you want to evade them, but don’t be too hard on yourself: it takes time and a lot of reading to discern a cliché). A simile makes its point clearly, but a metaphor makes its point quicker and more powerfully. In fact, metaphor, unlike simile, equates the items named.

You can go online to read about conceptual metaphors, but what I have written above is all you really need to know.

Shakespeare was devoted to metaphor. He used it in his poetry and also in his plays.

Shall I compare thee to a summer”s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate…

These lines from “Sonnet #18” tie the beloved one to a summer day that is neither too hot nor too cool. Both the beloved one and the summer day are calm and graceful and deserve celebration for those qualities. The lines that follow continue the comparison between the beloved one and weather. The final couplet tells us that the beloved one will live on because the poem will live on.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Beginning with a single summer day, Shakespeare expands the verse into a comment on the nature of eternity:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st…

These four lines are not easy to grasp but essentially they tell us that the person about whom he is writing will always be young because the poem has captured the beloved one’s youth and the poem will carry that image for all eternity. From anyone else, this would be a desperate boast, but Shakespeare’s sonnet has indeed survived that long.

Frequently cited are these lines from his play As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…

It was, of course, only natural for a playwright to compare the world with a play. And of course we do have our exits and our entrances, according to our own timetables. And indeed each of us lives through a series of parts or phases such as childhood, adolescence, and old age. Shakespeare describes seven such parts, from infancy to second childhood, wringing every drop of moisture from the towel. That, the wringing, is yet another metaphor. Once you become used to the idea of metaphor, you’ll find that metaphors are magnificently abundant. You’ll also find yourself picking and choosing, precisely because they are so abundant. You want to choose the metaphor that best fits what you are trying to tell the reader.

If you say to the reader, “War is hell,” you have not only used a cliché but you have said little. You’ve said, “War is bad.” Perhaps you’ll decide you need to say something about how war is bad. Or you may say, “People die in war.” Or, “War wrecks our environment.” Or “Survivors of war are often alone and lonely.” Or, “War is ruinous.” Maybe you want to make these statements more effective, bolder and more memorable. We could use a common simile: “In war, people die like dogs.” In this case, we are assuming that all dogs die in atrocious circumstances. The death of a dog is always sad but not always atrocious. When our Pippin was put down at the age of 17 and seven months, the vet and the nurses and the helpers at the clinic surrounded him with love. They stroked his head, huddling around him, murmuring to him. War does wreck our environment, but it might be helpful to point to particulars like polluted water or a raging fire. The plural “survivors” of war would be better served by specific descriptions. “War is ruinous” cannot begin to tally the devastation and depletion war wreaks upon the world.

So let’s look for comparisons that will strengthen these statements. “The dying soldier’s mouth hung open as if he were looking for food, even dog food.” “Ruin was heaped on ruin, as if order was unknown.” “We watched as a survivor of the war crossed the bridge and vanished into a thicket of trees.” “People were scrabbling through piles of bricks and bodies, hoping to save whomever or whatever could be saved.” The first two are similes; the third is a simple statement; the fourth might be said to impinge on metaphor, but it too is simply descriptive.

Yet it is not at all difficult to find a metaphor. “The dying soldier lay in a lake of blood.” The metaphor is in the comparison of blood with lake. “What seemed at first glance to be ruins heaped on ruins were piles of corpses.” The metaphor is in the comparison between fallen buildings and the dead. “A survivor of the war reached the end of the bridge and became the sunset.” The metaphor is in the comparison between the end of the bridge and the sunset. “People were now insects scrabbling over piles of bricks and bodies.” The metaphor is in the comparison of people to insects, though I added a “now” and changed “through” to “over” to make the picture a little clearer.

Forgive me for drawing pictures of war. I am currently writing a book about war, so war is on my mind.

Again, it is not at all difficult to find a metaphor, but you are looking for the metaphor, the one that will give your statement the biggest punch. Read this meditation (No. 17) from John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions:

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee…

Donne’s metaphor is that any one man is part of a continent of men, that the continent is composed of all men. That, like a continent, mankind is eroded by every death that occurs. That we are part of a whole, and share in every death and every life.

This metaphor was close to Donne’s heart, as numerous relatives were imprisoned, or exiled, and his own career seemed to falter. Now considered the front runner of the Metaphysical Poets, only seven of his poems were published during his life. But manuscripts of his poetry were passed around, and thank goodness for that, because that was how his work came to attention in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Here is another of his well-known poems:

Death Be Not Proud
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

(It must have been lovely to believe in a heaven, but then, those who believed also believed they were in danger of going to hell). •