May 18, 2008

Mixed Metaphors - On Being a Professional Amateur

If you’ve read Maya’s books or even her interview here on Constructing Stories, you know she excels at crafting powerful metaphors. Today, she helps us figure out how to do the same. And, if you haven’t already, check out her posts about sloppiness and language abuse.

Mixed Metaphors
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

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 metaphors 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.
Mashing these three ideas together results in what's called a "mixed metaphor." 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 metaphor to go with. While in this case he may not literally envision each of these, the use of three metaphors 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."

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. In the sentence above, Gregor sees through our hero as if he were a window without curtain (concealment) or color (disguise).

Check out Maya’s previous posts in this series, “On Being a Professional Amateur," and don’t forget to sign up for the RSS feed so that you won’t miss the next one!


Unknown said...

Ah very interesting! Enjoyed the post - thanks J

J Sherer said...

I'm stoked to present Maya's series. She's awesome at writing metaphors that engage the imagination. It's always cool to here from someone who's really good at something, particularly when they give you hints at how you could do something better.

Hopefully, that adds value to your own writing.

KC said...

That was a good post but the phrase that said, "He saw me as a fish out of water," is actually a simile not a metaphor. Similes use like or as, whereas metaphors are direct. Good advice though!

J Sherer said...

If you wanted to get really technical, wouldn't it be true that a simile is a type of metaphor? Maya, I would assume that the rules for metaphors work in the broad sense, meaning that similes are included?

That's a good catch, KC. I'm interested in Maya's opinion on the difference between the two.

Thanks for the comment! I hope you'll check out the rest of the series!

Kaath9 said...

Technically speaking similes and metaphors are siblings. Paternal twins, if you will.

Take our poor waterless fish. If you say, "I was like a fish out of water," it's a simile. If you say, "I was a fish out of water" it's a direct metaphor. If you say, "I floundered for a moment, gasping at the thought" it's an implied metaphor.

Simile is often a tool in constructing a metaphor (note the root "meta").

For example, the way my friend used it, the fish out of water became part of a larger metaphorical construct that simply didn't work. The images were mixed. The similes used to create the metaphor didn't support each other and the fish became a window then morphed into an actor.

Here's an example (not to say a good example) of a metaphor created with the use of a supporting simile: "Stunned by the thought, my brain floundered and flapped like a beached fish."