Jeanne: Thoughts on Voice and Metaphor

On Sunday, Jilly talked about writing voice.

After 40 years of writing, my own voice has developed a lot over the past 5, due in large part to my trusty beta reader and queen of metaphor, Nicole Amsler. Because the experience of developing a stronger voice is so recent, I have some thoughts to offer on this topic.

I recommend going here to review Jilly’s post before you read this. If you don’t have time to do that, here’s a brief overview:

Jilly’s protagonist, Alexis, is a six-foot-tall, shaven-headed girl who was raised as a boy in a monastery of fighting monks. In her first real fight, she fells a much larger opponent in hand-to-hand combat. Jilly was looking for a metaphor to capture the way he falls to the ground.

She also mentioned a perfect metaphor she encountered in Sir Terry Pratchett’s fourth Discworld book, Mort: “Binky moved at an easy gallop, his great muscles sliding under his skin as easily as alligators off a sandbank.”

I don’t aspire to the level of Pratchett (okay, I aspire, but I don’t expect to pull it off), but there are a few requirements for creating good, voicey metaphors:

1) Original. Clichés are rich images—dropped like a stone, fell like a tree—but readers have seen them so many times they’ve lost their vividness. To really be impactful, metaphors and similes need to be fresh.

In one of Annie Proulx’s books, The Shipping News, she described a little girl’s hand as “hot as a dog’s paw.” Dogs’ normal body temperatures run a degree or two above humans’, so if you’ve ever handled a dog’s foot, that image creates a visceral impact.

2) Bounded by the point-of-view character’s experience.

Jilly attacked the task of identifying a strong metaphor in the right way—by first defining the boundaries of her character’s life and then looking for an experience that sums up what’s currently going on for her—seeing her felled opponent drop heavily to the ground.

This is something to consider when you’re building your world. Every decision you make about what does and doesn’t exist in the setting you create for your characters sets limitations on what metaphors, and even individual words, you’ll be able to use in describing later events.

One metaphor that occurred to me for Jilly’s situation is the water bucket dropping into the well.

The problem with this, of course, is that people typically lower buckets into wells slowly, using the hand-crank provided at the top of the well. Only if the axle had recently been oiled and the water-bearer just let the bucket drop unhindered would you get momentum comparable to an unconscious man falling to the ground.

Which brings us to the third requirement:

3) Intuitive.

Metaphors that enrich our writing without making it strained and hard to follow evoke an instantaneous image. They’re like the punch-line of a joke—if someone has to explain it, it isn’t funny. Similarly, if a metaphor needs a long setup, the setup robs it of intensity.

That’s why Pratchett’s alligator and Proulx’s dog paw work so well.

4) Bounded by the reader’s experience

This is a subset of “intuitive.” What is intuitive for one reader may not be for another. I would argue that Pratchett’s alligator works better than Proulx’s dog because if you’ve never handled a dog’s paw, you won’t know how hot they feel, but most of us have seen movies or nature programs showing alligators slithering off a sandbank.

You can’t, of course, account for every potential reader, but keeping in mind the general level of exposure your audience has with your planned metaphor is a good idea.

5) Generating good metaphors:

The first thing I generally do is just ask myself what the thing I’m trying to describe looks like or feels like or sounds like or smells like. I try to let words and images run through my mind, unfiltered.

If that doesn’t bring up anything useful, I sometimes try Googling the quality I’m trying to describe, (e.g. “momentum”). Often, I limit the results to images, since I don’t want to steal someone else’s words. (And sometimes I’m desperate and cheerfully rip off other, better writers.)

Sometimes you can take an element of what you’re describing and just work with that. For example, instead of describing how he fell, you might try describing how it sounded when he hit the ground.

Another option is to use the cliché, but making it very specific to the POV character’s world: not just “He fell like a tree,” but “He fell like a <biggest, very specific tree that exists only in your made-up world>.” You’ll want to set this up ahead of time.

For example, in Jilly’s case, as Alexis is making her way through the forest prior to the fight, she think about the Abraxis tree that towers over every other tree in the forest. One time, one was felled near the monastery. It shook the earth for three miles in any direction. Maybe it knocked over the candles on the altar. Then, pages later, when her opponent drops, she can just make a short-hand reference to an event the reader is already familiar with.

How do you go about generating strong, voicey metaphors?

12 thoughts on “Jeanne: Thoughts on Voice and Metaphor

  1. What Jeanne said :-)! Really, that’s great advice. Everything has to flow from the character and make sense in her mind/world/reactions.

    Something Micki brought up in her comment to Jilly’s post made sense to me as well. It was that not everyone would want to have a metaphor in the midst of a high-action scene like a fight. I’m in that camp. I think that step back to observe/process/react in that moment would stop me as a reader (YMMV and all that). But if this is Alexis’s first fight, I’d definitely expect to see her reacting to it at some point, with all the emotions (whatever those would be for her) and connections and metaphors that show us how her mind works.

    • Thanks!

      As far as using metaphor in a battle scene, I think it goes back to the “must be intuitive rule.” If your metaphor is visceral and can be understood instinctively, it won’t slow down your fight scene. I’m not a fan of the long, involved, labored metaphor under any circumstances (that I can think of, anyway). Maybe in essay writing, but not in fiction.

      I found a website where they were working on juicing up a fight scene (and now can’t find again, darn it).. They came up with “a tempest of arrows,” and “magma-red blood.” Those are both rich images that wouldn’t slow down an action scene.

      • (-: I often bring up things for the sake of argument.

        I was once in a car that spun out on ice — and the road was not uncrowded. That slowing-down thing that happens when one’s life is in danger in the movies? Yep, I think that’s a real thing. So many thoughts crammed into my head when I thought I was about to die, but it didn’t feel hurried. It felt like the cliche molasses.

        So, in a fight, it could happen. I trust Jilly’s judgement — she’s in the story and has great taste. Something’s not working, and I think you might be right, Jeanne, that it’s got to be short and sharp and absolutely intuitive. Not something that takes some “translating”.

        • My friend the kung fu expert says the time slowing down feeling is absolutely a thing, and also believing that you’ve barely made a kiss of contact with someone and then discovering afterwards that you’ve struck them with awesome force. So I felt confident in borrowing both of those experiences for Alexis. It just occurred to me that I asked my friend (and one of his students) how it feels to be knocked cold and how long it takes to recover, but I never asked him how the victim would fall. I must remember to ask – would be interesting to know what he says.

          I totally agree with you ladies about short, sharp, and absolutely intuitive. I’ll let you know when I finally figure it out!

  2. Great post, Jeanne! I’ve found myself using A LOT of similes and metaphors in my current WIP — so many that I’m afraid my readers are going to roll their eyes if they have to read one more “as if” phrase. But, hey, early draft. I can cut that out later, if I can figure out a way to keep the flavor that the wild metaphors give.

    I think the best way to get strong metaphors is to have lots of experience — both first- and second-hand. Read lots, imagine vividly, and when out in Real Life, turn on your meta and turn your experiences into prose. “Oh, that garbage truck rumbling by sounded like an earthquake.” Which means when you have an earthquake in your story, you can turn it into a garbage truck.

    I found myself doing that a lot when I was relaxing on vacation. (-: Especially in those creepy hotels. I knew there were no ghosts — but I could turn all sorts of rather normal phenom into “like ghosts.”

    What’s that math term? 1+2=2+1. It’s all a matter of mental rearrangement of experience. (She says if it were actually easy. Well, the Girls are the ones doing the hard work; I rarely find that “I” can do anything with metaphor. All I can do is ask the Girls to dig deeper.)

    • My all-time favorite is “she looked at me like a cow looks at a train.”

      My French ex-boss used to use it after he’d spoken to somebody he found especially stupid and we liked it so much we all borrowed it. One of my colleagues, who was a DJ, threatened to sample it and put it over a dance music track 🙂 .

      • There’s a fabulous list of really awful metaphors culled from high school papers at

        My personal favorite is: “He fell for her likke his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.” I actually think if you were going for a wise-guy voice, this one’s perfect.

        I also love: “This little boat drifted gently across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

        Hmm. Maybe that’s another rule. You can’t create a metaphor based on what something isn’t.

        Or can you? Must think about this some more.

        • Oh, Jilly, I would love to hear metaphors sampled on a track. I’ve been listening to one called “Sex and the Church” a lot lately, and it’s hypnotic, and leads my mind down dark paths I wouldn’t normally venture down.

          (-: And Jeanne, I love those analogies. About half of them could be writing prompts! Of course, some are very dark — you’ve got to have a really pass-agg attitude if you think your lover’s eyes look as though they’ve been dipped in mucus.

          But I’ve always been a sucker for a writer who flips a metaphor upside down then ruthlessly slaps it around a bit. For example, Douglas Adams’ space tea is “a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.” So much hype in life turns out to be almost, but not quite, entirely up to its advertising . . . . My mind goes back to Arthur Dent’s cuppa time and time again. I think Pratchett also pulls a few “big green bouncy thing like a big green bouncy thing” comparisons, which I always find funny. The meta uselessness of describing anything, I suppose.

  3. Pingback: Jilly: Season of Fruitfulness. Again. – Eight Ladies Writing

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