For the aspiring writers among us, I offer this third blog in a workshop series on the craft of writing. Obviously you don’t have to do the exercises, ’cause nobody’s watching, but you might have fun with them.
Sample sentence: This seemed a long way from the moment in which Gregor clearly saw through me as a fish out of water, acting out an unnatural scene.
How many metaphorical images did you count?
I got three:
1) He saw through me (meaning, I was transparent to him).
2) He saw me as a fish out of water (meaning, he saw that I was out of place).
3) He saw me as an actor in an “unnatural” scene (meaning that perhaps the scene was off-kilter rather than the protagonist).
When you mash these three ideas together, they result in what’s called a mixed metaphor. I’m speaking broadly here about a metaphorical construct that is made up of both metaphors and similes. In this construct our hero is a window, a fish and an actor all in one sentence.
When this happens, the reader is at a loss to know which image to go with. While in this case he may not literally envision each of these, the use of three metaphors/similes blurs the emotional “image” of the relationship between these two characters.
What’s a good metaphor?
One that gives you more than one tangible image to hang your observations on. For example, let’s say you go with the initial image of the window. You might say: This was a long way from the moment in which Gregor clearly saw through me, stripping away any pretense of curtain or color I might use for cover.
In selecting a metaphor, think about what the images that go with it mean—how they look, sound, taste. Chose one that sends a single message to the reader’s mind, such that each image you add enhances or focuses it even more tightly.
In the rewritten sentence above, Gregor sees through our hero as if he were a window without curtain (concealment) or color (disguise).
Exercise: Try your hand at rewriting the sentence. See if you can find a metaphor that will capture what the character is trying to say about his or her relationship with Gregor. You might use one of the images in the original sentence or you may make up something entirely new.
Alternatively, if you have a metaphorical passage in your own prose that’s giving you a headache, try deconstructing and rewriting that. The point is that you think about each metaphorical image you use to make sure that they reinforce the whole rather than weaken it.