I was reading today during breakfast, and I stumbled across a few things that made me think. Good (fiction) writing almost always uses figurative language. Poetry would choke its dying gasps without it. Prose would wither away as well. However, lazy figurative language can easily spin into the realm of cliche. Here’s what The 25 has to say:
21. Figurative Language
Figurative language can enrich our writing, adding nuance and depth, like the addition of a harmony line to a melody. The right metaphor can enlarge our subject and offer our readers new ways of perceiving it. The risk involved, like adding a heavy sauce to your delicately flavored meal, is that the language can distract the reader and obscure your meaning rather than developing it. Figurative language calls attention to itself, can easily descend to cliché, and asks for the reader’s complicity, all of which could break your reader’s focus.
My advice, therefore, is to use figurative language sparingly, strive to make it fresh, and understand the implications of the comparisons you’re making (directly or indirectly). Make sure it’s serving the piece. In creating an effective metaphor, trust your subconscious, which makes connections our conscious minds cannot readily make. Don’t reach for the quick, easy one. Instead, take the time to plumb the depths of your imagination. Risk a reach toward an unlikely comparison rather than a safe one. You might be surprised at one you find, and your reader will be delighted.
Think of these comparisons:
…white as snow.
…cold as ice.
…chiseled as a statue/sculpture.
…cold as death.
…red as blood.
Those are just a few of the many cliches inhabiting figurative language. If you ever want to see an excellent example of a writer who is a master of the stuff, read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The book is told from the perspective of Death, who has an intriguing sense of whimsy. The book is full of metaphors, personification, and other language usage that most people wouldn’t think to string together.
One thing I try to do with figurative language — whether I succeed is anyone’s guess — is to pair and compare subjects that aren’t normally put together, or at least try to be imaginative about it. Slow as a glacial floe, as unlikely as a blizzard on Mercury. Her skin was so sensitive the the sun’s rays that she had to go to Siberia to get a base tan.
Language is a tool, and like most tools, you can create something entirely new with it. My challenge to you if you’re feeling stuck with figurative language is to think of the usual words that inspire metaphors (anger, cold, heat, joy, boredom, grace, light, dark, and night for a start) and “plumb the depths” of your imagination. Be a little outrageous. Fill a page with them. You’ll know looking over them later which ones click and which ones face plant. Just remember, writers are at their best when they don’t play it safe.
Play it dirty, play it dangerous, and play it loud — figuratively speaking, of course.