On Becoming a Professional Amateur, #3: Mixed Metaphors

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.



On Becoming a Professional Amateur, #3: Mixed Metaphors — 5 Comments

  1. This any good?

    This seemed a long way from the moment in which Gregor breathed upon the frosted window of my dissimulation and in that instant of clarity, saw through me, recognising I was not who I appeared to be.


  2. Bob, the metaphor itself is lovely. The frosted window is a striking visual image. I like it better than my curtains image!

    I think maybe the language in the rest of the sentence tries a little too hard, though, and does a little too much. I’d swap something simpler for dissimulation — pretense, maybe — and end the sentence on “saw through me”. I think “recognising I was not who I appeared to be” isn’t necessary and (IMO) actually weakens the emotional impact of the metaphor.

    I think when you use such a clean, crisp and evocative image as the frosted window you’ve struck a clean blow, as it were. Adding too much more to that just softens the punch and steals the clarity. By the time I read to “who I appeared to be” I’ve already started to forget the evocative image of the frosted window.

    ‘Zat make sense?

  3. Hey Maya,
    I’m relieved it wasn’t a total train wreck! Glad that you found the first part to work and I agree that pretense is probably a more comprehensible word to use.
    I’m enjoying your tips and exercises 🙂

  4. This seemed a long way from the moment in which Gregor saw me as a fish out of water, flapping around in an attempt not to grow gills, but to pretend I already had.

  5. Maya, I have a question about your latest collaboration with michael reaves. Do you plan to revisit the character of Jax Pavan with a new novel?