The primary influences on my writing have always been Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Based on what I have read, neither was a fan of metaphors. Somewhere in the back of my mind I seem to recall Hemingway once calling metaphors “the weakest of animals” or “the “weakest of literary devices” or something like that (I have searched for this quote and haven’t found it yet). Ergo, I have always shied away from metaphors and I have found that it has helped my writing immensely by forcing me to be creative in my comparisons and analogies. While searching in vain for Hemingway’s quotation on metaphors tonight, I ran across this quotation from George Orwell which makes a few good points:
“By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images dash [sic] … it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.”
Metaphors are a bridge to another idea; they take the reader onto a tangent. If I say, “The hunter stumbled through the woods like a wounded bear,” I am shifting the reader’s visual image from that of the hunter to that of a bear. Yes, I give the reader a concise description of how the hunter was stumbling, and the reader can probably visualize the stumbling rather accurately, but wouldn’t the reader become more involved with the hunter and be able to visualize the scene more precisely if the hunter is described as if he were a wounded bear stumbling. Wouldn’t it also be a bit more of an intriguing psychological puzzle for the reader to solve and come to his own sudden epiphany of something like “Oh, he’s moving like a wounded bear!” For example:
The hunter, half-dazed from a blow to the head, his dark eyes fixed on some point on the dim horizon, staggered back and forth, bumping into trees, sometimes leaning against them to keep from collapsing into the hard-packed snow, dropping to one knee then rising slowly, painfully catching his breath, limping, often groaning, sometimes bellowing out in a desperate hope that someone passing through the distant shadows might come to his aid.
Isn’t that more dramatic? Doesn’t that involve the reader more into the actions and situation of the main character? Yes, it’s considerably longer, but now the reader can visualize precisely the hunter’s agonizing movements. Now, instead of having to visualize a bear, all attention is focused entirely on visualizing the hunter. Now you are forced to be creative, to use something other than Orwell’s “stale metaphors, similes and idioms” and have to use something more dynamic. No one can accuse you of not really thinking or of being lazy in your descriptions.
In short, if I want to compare two objects, I describe one using the characteristics and attributes of the other. If I have done it well, the reader will see the likeness between the two, but will still remained focused, and maybe even more intensely, on the subject.
I have used this method for some time now, and I believe it has strengthened my works considerably.
For more on this method of describing objects, see my article on the Tao of Writing Part 3: Talking about Dogs.