It’s Like a Metaphor, See?

Pair of pearsWriters are constantly drawing comparisons between apples and oranges. It’s an important part of our job – part of the delight of reading, for many readers, is seeing the similarities between two concepts that may appear to be completely unrelated. It’s clever. It’s interesting. It helps us maintain the illusion that there’s some order and purpose in the universe.

Many of us (myself included) think of “metaphor” as a catch-all term for comparisons made between unlike things. However, that’s not really true; we make a metaphor only when we make that comparison implicitly. “Your grandma’s a fox,” for example, is a proper metaphor. The reader knows from the context of common speech that the speaker really means “Your grandma is attractive and glamorous,” so no further clarification is needed.

That’s the thing about true metaphors: they lack explicit comparative signals, so you need some kind of interpretive context if you don’t want to lose the reader. If you don’t have the space for that context, then what you need is a simile. It does the same job, but it uses “like” or “as” to give you reader a clear signal that a comparison is being made. For example, “Your uncle is as mean as a snake” doesn’t leave the reader wondering how the uncle is like a snake; the comparison is drawn without excessive work on the reader’s part.

Whether you use a metaphor or a simile really does come down to how much effort you want the reader to put into understanding your comparison. This isn’t always an unpleasant effort – indeed, many of us enjoy reading poetry for the challenge of figuring out all the complex metaphors. However, if you don’t want the reader to be distracted by the comparison, or if you think the reader might be confused by it, then a simile is generally your best bet.


In Praise of Outlining

Purple salsify seedheadThere’s been a nasty rumor going around the world of creative writing for years. People have been saying that if you do it right, a work of prose will just come to you. The plot will flow through your mind, the characters will spring to life of their own accord, and your role in the whole process is simply to provide the “creative energy” – whatever that means.

It’s untrue that a piece of creative writing will never flow to you like this. However, it is just as untrue that you can expect such a wonderful thing to happen every time you sit down at your desk. A large part of the craft of writing is learning how to get through those dull, mundane days when the vivid story in your head does not want to effortlessly transform itself into a written work. Outlining is one of the most valuable tools available when this happens to us.

Every writer completes their outlines a little differently, but most writers begin their outlines by deciding to send their characters on a journey from Point A to Point B. Point B doesn’t have to be the end of the book; it could be the end of the chapter, or the next sex scene, or the next big plot-driving revelation. Once you have a Point B in mind, it’s a little easier to track back and write down events that need to happen to get you characters there.

It may not come quickly, and it may not come easily, but you will eventually have your outline – that is to say, you’ll have a list of small, sequential steps that your story needs to take between Point A and Point B. If you’re having a good, easy day of writing, you might find that a sparse outline is all you need to guide you through your day’s work. If you’re having a not-so-easy day, then writing a detailed outline and tackling steps one at a time can help the task of composition seem a little less daunting.

Although many of us are most familiar with the outline from our days composing essays in the schoolroom, this tool has its place in creative writing as well. Outlines can hep you flesh out your ideas, strengthen your plot, and help you overcome writer’s block one bullet point at a time.