I love metaphors. They lend a lyrical respite from straightforward prose that delivers just the facts ma’am. But as with all writing, we’re about balance, and writing that is chock-a-block with metaphors reminds me of when the beagle decided we didn’t need no steekin’ limeade in the margaritas and added solid tequila, beer, and grand marnier. I was drunk for three days and woke up in my neighbor’s car. Wearing their LA Times as a sombrero.
In other words, thar can be too much of a good thing and sometimes, we need a little limeade to enhance the drink and dilute the booze. I’m talking about the dreaded Metaphor Overload.
Writers have a tendency to fall in love with their prose, and their love affair tends to rear its poetic little head via Metaphor Overload. See, metaphors are representations for something else, so there’s plenty of room for their meaning to be a bit elusive.
She floated across the room on angel’s wings
Can we be absolutely certain what the writer means here? At first blush, most of us would think the writer used this metaphor to represent an overjoyed character whose feet didn’t touch the floor. Or that she sees her love and is overjoyed. Le sigh. In reality, the writer meant that the character was dizzy and nearly passed out. Even I didn’t catch that, and I had the friggin’ pages in my hand. There was no other reference or lead in to the fact that she was dizzy, so this sentence made no sense within the scene.
Now imagine an entire story written in this style.
An author’s first job is to be clear. If you’re going to use metaphors, make sure that your lead in leaves no room for confusion. Unclear writing leads to books being unceremoniously thrown across the room. Le ouch.
Oh shaddap, already!
I remember spending time with a friend who was a gourmet cook. Oh there were blintzes and fois gras, poached this, and truffled that. We drank decanted fussy red wine whose titles contained lots of apostrophes. After the weekend was over, I high-tailed it to McDonald’s for a Big Mac and fries. As much as my friend loves to do up the dog, there are times I simply want a cheeseburger and a Coke. Too much of a good thing ruins Pricey’s intestinal tract.
Same goes for writing. If a story is so jammed-packed with metaphorical prose, then every little nuance becomes a state affair. Instead of simply taking a drink of water or eating a Twinkie, the action is a major headline in the national paper.
He exited his twelve-cylinder chariot, whose wheels had eaten the city’s pavement like a thousand Arabian horses in heat.
Unless this action is vital to the scene, it’s really ok to just tell the reader that the character got out of his damned car. No need to belabor every little detail because it won’t take long before the reader will scream, “I get it, already!”
Metaphor Overload removes the distinction of what’s important and what’s simply an action. It doesn’t take long before the reader starts looking for a Dan Brown novel.
Less is more
Metaphors are powerful little lit bombs because of the images they conjure up in our minds. They are poetic and seductive. And potent. So like my singing, a little goes a long way. Use them in places where it’s really important to do so – where they will make a memorable impact. Because really – we all need a little limeade to make the perfect margarita.