Create Your Own ‘Fine Writing’ Machine (15 Original Ways)
Does the day smile at you? Or has the month come in like thunder? Do little lambs frolic in your heart? (Then best see a doctor straightaway.)
If you’ve ever felt those sentiments you’re on the slippery slope to writing Literature. And that way madness lies. Before long, you’ll be shaking your head like a bottle every morning to check if there’s still a brain in it.
Metaphor can become addictive.
Like a Thai chef with chili, you’ll put it in everything. As I just did.
But why not?
Figures of speech — like rhetorical questions — were once the bright plumage of literature, in the days when little distinction was made between poetry and prose. (The rot set in around the 1660s when England’s Royal Society banned the use of metaphor in scientific papers. Money was saved on printer’s ink but there’s no poetry in S = k log W.)
Today, we eschew all grace notes, along with any word that might seem difficult, like ‘eschew’.
Why? When writing fiction, we must focus on the story not the author, so we’re told. Pretty writing throws the reader out of the tale. “How well s/he writes,” we breathe. And we’ve lost the plot.
There’s room for both kinds of fiction. One says “look at my work (and pretend the author is invisible)”. The other preens “Look at me.”
Nowadays, the latter style prevails, and it’s a shame. I see no harm in ‘look at me’ fiction, if the author’s an interesting person. Is our presence not intrinsic in our work? Yes. Would The Four Seasons be the same without Vivaldi? No.
Modern novelists have lost the music. Let’s bring it back.
Yeoman’s Metaphor Machine: 15 Artful Ways To Make Your Story Sing.
Step one: Create A Simple Figure.
Think of a clichéd simile. ‘He was as strong as an ox.’ (Every cliché was innovative in its time.)
Contract it to a metaphor. ‘He was an ox.’
Trim it to its essence then expand it. ‘The ox glared at me.’
That’s elegant. But we can finesse it. And have fun. Here are at least fifteen further ways to create original figures of speech, starting with a term as simple as an ox:
Step two: To apply finesse…
a. Assume a Cosmic Viewpoint.
‘Nature obviously intended him to be an ox but got no further than his neck.’
‘Never has an ox looked so coyly upon a cow. Or so I reflected when John arrived with Jill.’
‘Born an ox, he became a man. Dull-eyed, docile. Safe in company. He was on every matron’s shopping list for their unmarriageable daughters.’
How could the author ‘know’ such things? Only by assuming the Eye of God.
b. Invoke the Five Senses.
‘If a man is as big as an ox, smells like an ox, and has bristles in his ox-like nose, what is he? A bailiff.’
‘He would have bellowed, pawed the carpet and tossed his head, I think, except that his wife had ringed him on their marriage day. So the ox contented itself with canapes and snorts.’
Get smell, taste, sight, sound and/or the tactile sense into your figures of speech. Sight alone — ‘he looked like a sleepy ox…’ — lacks depth.
c. How does your narrator feel?
‘Have you ever been cornered by an angry ox? No, me neither. Not until that moment.’
‘I could have lost my soul in those ox-like eyes. Trusting. Foolish. But I was not a fool. Nor was she. One blink and I saw the woman as she was. A lynx.’
‘It was a sultry day so I played the ox. I browsed among the bookshops. I meditated on Great Thoughts. I flicked my tail at passersby. Then my wife arrived with a bagful of shopping. Goodbye, ox.’
Imbue your figure of speech with the narrator’s responses to a character or incident and you’ve achieved two things at once.
d. Discover ‘diaphors’.
‘I might have loved him if I’d been a butcher. He was 240lbs of prime beef on the bone.
‘John was an ox for all weathers. Sunshine or snow, he chewed on bliss. Or so it seemed.
What’s a diaphor? It’s an academic term for a metaphor developed from an abstraction.
‘Romance beckoned to me from the smiling clouds.’ (Yuk.)
An epiphor is much the same, except that it’s built on something real or concrete. ‘My smoke rings formed a heart around her head.’ It’s more realistic — we’ve all seen smoke rings — and possibly less yucky (except to the lady in question).
e. Coin a Truism.
‘An ox is a wonderful beast. Strong, Loyal. A friend to humankind. But you don’t want it sitting in your arm chair.’
‘“I’m John,” he said, treading on my foot. An ox by any other name is still an ox.’
Many wise proverbs or truisms began as metaphors. Why not coin your own?
f. Be gnomic.
‘To describe John as an ox would be an insult to both John and oxen. But why should I not insult a man who is a dumb sullen beast? As for oxen, they have thick skins.’
‘No useful distinction can be made between an ox and a bull, except in a china shop. On such occasions, you could trust John with a thousand Ming vases. He was an ox.’
A gnome is not necessarily a Swiss financier. It can also be an aphorism, a witty expression of a general truth. But unlike a proverb, it is unique to a given author. Nobody has written gnomically since the days of O. Henry. But why not? Gnomes are fun.
g. Play with extreme compression.
‘“Ox-eyed, deep-bosomed, sleep-walker,” Reggie classified her.’ (H. C. Bailey)
‘A dim-eyed, ox-faced, offal-wit, I thought, charitably.’
Take one emotive word, add an adjective, separate them with a hyphen and what have you got? Perhaps an evocative new term.
Step three: Explore your addiction.
Once you’ve played the metaphor game, you’ll be hooked. No long journey need be tedious again. Take out a notebook and turn your fellow travelers — or scenes en route — into figures of speech.
My author friend Michelle is totally addicted. “See that lady?” she whispered to me one day as we drank coffee in a museum. “She looks like a fruit sundae with too many nuts.” “Or a broody hen?” I suggested, prosaically. A giggle. “I wonder where she laid her eggs?”
Yes, it’s a dangerous game. (I’ve often pondered what Michelle said about me, afterwards.)
But enjoy your new habit. Go with the flow. Here are even more ways to create figures of speech:
‘She looked at him as if he had six legs and a hard shell.’
‘His eyes lidded as if he had heard the trumpet of a distant herald.’
‘He peered into his glass as if he thought the answer might lie beneath the froth.’
‘The way that…’
‘John looked the way my feet smelt.’
‘Jill dances the way that Donald Duck sings’.
‘Twenty stone of walking malice.’
‘Five foot of prating foppery.’
‘Eighty years of wrinkled patience’
‘If an essayist had wished to pen the character of an idiot it would have been that of John.’
‘He looked like a Greek god, if a god ever had dandruff, acne and bad breath.’
Synesthesia (the confusion of one sense with another)
‘Loud with the colours of…’
‘Bright with the sounds of…’
‘Heavy with the fragrances of…’
‘Fragrant with the tastes of…’
‘The moon rose to mock me…’
‘The clouds grew grey, to chide me…’
‘The roses perished at my touch.’
The run-it-all-together tactic
‘She gave me one of those don’t-look-at-me-now-because-I-haven’t-washed-my-hair kind of looks.’
The ironic twist
‘The judges were all men of honour, wit and wisdom, but none had more than two of these together.’
Observe the Golden Mean, of course.
Be moderate in everything but moderation! Drop in more than one figure of speech per 100 words and you’ll turn into Oscar Wilde. And be careful when sharing these powerful ideas with other writers. They may not be as moderate as you are. Or as wise. They’ll fall slap on their faces at Wattpad.
If they do, you could always send them a gnome
‘An ox can churn a field but it can’t make butter.’
Sometimes (to coin a truism), you have to be cruel to be kind…
Do you agree with me that it’s high time figures of speech returned to literature? Or do they belong to the days of ruffs and farthingales, now mercifully lost? Please share your views below.
A challenge: I’ll send a free copy of my story writing manual How Did The Author Do That? — in both mobi (Kindle) and pdf — to whoever posts the most original and effective metaphor in the comment thread.
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is a top-rated Amazon novelist and tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that get published in his free 14-part course at:
Originally published at www.writers-village.org.