How To Shiver Me Timbers With Your Metaphors

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

"Metaphor" artwork by Cybil Liberty, with quotations on metaphor and creativityI love metaphor. In fact the name of this blog My Song In The Night is a metaphor, which we explore in our hymn “My Song In The Night” (which you can download for free in the column to your right, as part of The Whole Big Story). In our Songwriter’s Glossary of Poetic And Rhetorical Devices, I said that metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things, in which one symbolizes the other.

But if the two things are unlike, then how can one symbolize the other? There must be some relation. If the relation is too obvious, the metaphor isn’t strong because the comparison won’t surprise or delight anyone. If there is no relation, however, you don’t have a metaphor; you’ve just got two things that bear no relation to one another, and a writer who appears to have lost his mind.

How To Create Good Metaphors

The trick to writing compelling metaphors is to realize the glue that holds a metaphor together is the quality or characteristic that two ideas or objects hold in common. So when you want to create a metaphor for a word, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What quality of this word do I want to explore?
  2. What else has that quality?
For example, say your word is “lust.” Now lust may be many things, but let’s say the characteristic that you want to emphasize is danger. So Lust = Dangerous.

What else is dangerous?

  • Swimming in shark-infested water
  • A steep cliff
  • A loaded gun

So we have “the shark-infested waters of lust,” or “lust is a steep cliff” or “lust’s loaded gun.”

Each of these could work, though none are terribly original because they were the first three dangerous things I thought of (probably because I once fell off a cliff, and I was a fan of Jaws and sharks as a child, and then when I delivered newspapers in my teens a lady pointed a gun at me, because she thought I was someone else. Somehow. I threw my hands in the air and shouted “Evening News!”).

Songwriting Metaphor Exercise: This is where brainstorming comes in handy. Grab a sheet of paper and start writing everything that comes to mind when you think of “danger.” Body slam your inner critic when he tells you an idea is stupid. Just write down everything that comes to mind. When you’re finished, you can pick the critic up off the mat and let him tell you which ones are stupid.

The more you do this exercise, the better you’ll get at finding new metaphors. Chances are, you’ll have one or two unique, surprising connections. These won’t necessarily be better than the more obvious loaded guns or shark-infested waters, but they might. It depends what you’re going for. And particularly if you’re writing songs for congregational worship, sometimes easier associations are better choices. You don’t want to be so esoteric that half the congregation won’t understand the connection, but you don’t want to be so obvious as to indulge in lifeless cliche. This is the usual two-pronged challenge of worship songwriters.

Metaphor image, top, by Sybil Liberty. Used via Flickr creative commons license

Previous post:

Next post: