Why Metaphors Are Important

Metaphors are not just a literary technique; they are a psychological technique.

Posted Nov 28, 2017

This post is the second in a series entitled The Writer's Laboratory. See the introductory post for more information.

correcting-1870721_1920 PixabayCCO 3844328
Source: correcting-1870721_1920 PixabayCCO 3844328

The metaphor is one of the most powerful tools in the artist’s toolbox. This is the case regardless of whether you are writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or a blog. (I couldn’t even get through the first sentence of this post without using one!) Writers love metaphors (and their like-minded cousin, the simile) because they add texture and beauty to an otherwise dry description. (For ease of explication, I will use the term “metaphor” for the rest of this post to refer to both metaphors and similes).

Now, most writers know that metaphors are important. But what is less known is why metaphors are so powerful. Lucky for us, psychological research on metaphors has exploded within the last decade to help us address these points.

Why are metaphors so powerful? The answer is that metaphors are not just a literary technique; they are a very potent psychological technique.

In their simplest form, metaphors compare two concepts that at first seem unrelated:

All the world’s a stage

Love is a battlefield

Life is like a box of chocolates

But look closer and you’ll see that each of these takes an abstract, hard to understand idea (the world, love, life) and compares it to a simple, concrete, well-understood idea (the stage, a battlefield, a box of candy). Now not all metaphors do this (e.g., “The basement was a dark cave” simply combines two concrete concepts). But the best ones connect something that is less understood with something that is more understood. As a result, good metaphors help the reader understand something they otherwise might not have.

In On Writing, master storyteller Stephen King notes this ability of metaphors to improve comprehension when he says that they enable people to “see an old thing in a new and vivid way.” For this reason, he says that metaphors are like a kind of miracle that occurs between writer and reader. I tend to agree.

Metaphors are also important because they help writers abide by the all-important “show, don’t tell” rule. For example, in the book Misery, Stephen King’s main character, Paul, has been rescued after a car accident by a crazy woman named Annie. At one point, she leaves Paul for two days without water, food, or most importantly, pain pills for his broken legs. In this scene, Paul is simultaneously wrestling with crippling pain, thirst, and hunger. To communicate this, King uses the metaphor of a horse race, with the horses Pain, Thirst, and Hunger all jockeying for first place. So rather than tell us outright what Paul is going through, King uses a metaphor to show us.

But metaphors go beyond just comprehension and demonstration—they actually change the way we think of a concept on an unconscious level. To demonstrate this, consider a study conducted by Thibodeau and Boroditsky in 2011. In it, half of the participants read about a crime-ridden city where the criminal element was described as a beast preying upon innocent citizens (an animal metaphor). A separate group read essentially the same description of the city, only it described the criminal element as a disease that plagued the town (a disease metaphor). Later, when asked how to solve the crime issue, those who read the animal metaphor suggested control strategies (increasing police presence, imposing stricter penalties). Those who read the disease metaphor instead suggested diagnostic or treatment strategies (seeking out the primary cause of the crime wave, bolstering the economy).

This study shows that changing the metaphor actually changed the way readers thought about the crime issue. If it was a beast, it needed to be controlled. If it was a disease, it needed to be treated. Thus, writers can use metaphors to strategically control their readers’ perceptions.

Okay, so you know metaphors are important and hopefully you now have a better understanding of why that is the case. But not all metaphors are equally powerful. We can all think of good metaphors that seemed to soar when we read them. Others hit the ground with a thud.

When it comes to designing metaphors, there is an infinite amount of things you can compare your concept to. So how do you make sure your metaphor is a good one?

In my opinion, the best way to craft a metaphor is to start with your target concept (e.g., sleep) and identify the quality you want to highlight (e.g., sleep can be heavy, peaceful or restless, you can slide into it or collapse). Once you’ve landed on your quality (e.g., slide into), then generate other things that also share this quality (e.g., a baseball player sliding into home plate, a pat of butter sliding down a hot griddle, a sled sliding down an icy hill, a weary body sliding into a warm bath).

For five simple tips on how to develop good metaphors, see an extended version of this post on my website.