Giving Your Story Roots by Phillip T. Stephens

banner.jpegEnjoy an exclusive guest post from Phillip T. Stephens, author of “Aims True” and “Coincidence and Correspondence,” featured in our upcoming anthology ON TIME.


Using metaphors and motifs to nourish your prose

My college writing teachers treated metaphors as useful decorations for writing.  My philosophy teachers called them “poetry and nonsense.” In the forty years since, philosophers and neuroscientists have reconsidered metaphor’s value. They believe metaphors communicate ideas more effectively (and memorably) than objective prose.[1]

Aristotle first classified metaphors as poetic devices and figurative language—artful comparisons and useful tools to convey mood or meaning—but still primarily artistic artifacts. Which may be why metaphors gets more attention in college than commercial fiction writing classes where they’re treated more as an afterthought rather than an integral element of prose. This is especially true of genre fiction, which is propelled by formula, plot and (far too often derivative) character. According to market wisdom, readers don’t buy metaphors, they buy stories. This may be true, but well-crafted metaphors make books memorable, which can boost an author’s sales and reputation.

Consider the following two examples:

Joe knew something evil had come to town. The gangs, the strip clubs, the drug dealers on Main Street corner in the middle of the day. The churches closing doors. The strip clubs replacing them.

A black mold coated the branches of every tree, growing thicker as Joe approached the heart of the town. Birds littered the gutters, a fungus growing from their feathers. Like fur. Hooded figures crept back into the shadows as he passed. Sunlight fled behind the storm clouds that loomed overhead. This city had become a black heart throbbing, pulsating, poisoning the city with the infection in its blood.

The second paragraph delivers an extended metaphor, or trope—a recurring set of images to convey the metaphor: “Joe’s city is infected.” The word “infected” is metaphorical because we know a city can’t be ill. However, aspects of the city mirror aspects of illness.

When writers discuss metaphors, they often refer to them as similes without the word “like.” Rather than describing Joe’s city as “like a sick person,” the example metaphor describes/defines it as “a sick person.”

I juxtaposed the words “describe” and “define” because metaphors do more than make simple comparisons. They add meaning to an idea, increase our understanding and add emotional connections. In my example, Joe’s city isn’t like a sick person, Joe’s city is sick. And the sickness feels creepy.

We frequently encounter the “sick” metaphor in modern discourse. Politicians claim “our country is sick,” or “our values are dying.” Friends may watch a disturbing movie and say, “That was sick.” Often they will say “literally sick” as though they recognize they’re speaking metaphorically, but feel the need to add an element of reality to their description.

This is the power of metaphor. It lends both descriptive and thematic elements to your prose.

Nor must you express a metaphor in the form: “[topic] is [metaphor].” Metaphors often are more effective when expressed in short-hand. Rather than writing “times are evil,” or “society is sick,” we might write “evil times,” “sick society.”  Writers often collapse metaphors into a single word or express them as images.  Instead of “she is driven,” you might write “she drove herself,” or even “she floored the gas pedal of ambition.”

Metaphors do more than describe

Many readers and writers confuse metaphor, simile and description. They appear to resemble each other, but metaphors stand apart. In an online thread, one reader quoted her favorite metaphor from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, “Percy wouldn’t recognize a joke if it danced naked in front of him wearing Dobby’s tea cozy.”

It’s a great line, but unfortunately the example is a description of Percy’s sense of humor. It may resemble a metaphor but it doesn’t compare Percy with jokes or jokes with naked dancing. It assembles them into a visual gag.

Metaphors you may have read

Neil Gaiman, American Gods: ”If Hell is other people, Purgatory is airports.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions: “There where tens of thousands of (shopping bag ladies) in major cities throughout the country. Ragged regiments of them had been produced accidentally, and to no imaginable purpose, by the great engine of the economy.”

Dorothy Gambrell, Cat and Girl: “If television’s a babysitter, the Internet is a drunk librarian who won’t shut up.”

Attributed to Raymond Chandler: “His face is an unmade bed.”

Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man : The men were thrown into space like a dozen wriggling silverfish. They were scattered into a dark sea; and the ship, in a million pieces, went on, a meteor swarm seeking a lost sun.

Walker Percy’s novel Love in the Ruins opens with a powerful metaphor:

“NOW IN THESE DREAD LATTER DAYS of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?” 

Percy builds upon a series of related metaphors, including “dread times,” “violent USA,” “beloved USA,” and (perhaps the most compelling) “Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world.” The metaphors suggest a system breaking down or falling apart. His words recall Yeats’ famous line “the center cannot hold.”

Later in the chapter Percy invokes a roller coaster metaphor: “What we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes.” He follows the roller coaster with the metaphor Society is demonic. “Principalities and powers are everywhere victorious. Wickedness flourishes in high places.”

Whether you agree or disagree with his message, the power of these metaphors drags Percy’s readers into a complex tale of apocalypse and social breakdown. His novel’s society becomes a mirror to American society.

Metaphor and genre

Genre fiction isn’t immune to metaphor. A writer once asked me why I rated her book four stars instead of five. I told her she had a compelling story and characters, but nothing memorable. Her novel was a novel of a town in decay, eaten away at its roots by past sins, but she missed the opportunity to create a mood of dread and decay with metaphoric language. (For instance “a town in decay, eaten away at its roots…”)

The rural town she imagined provided her with opportunities to extend her decay metaphor with descriptions of dying leaves on trees, crumbling cemetery headstones, abandoned buildings, crops withering in the fields. Her oversight didn’t make her novel less good, but she missed an opportunity to make it something exceptional.

Stories are as common as goldfish in a pond (simile). Metaphors are the magic infusing its depths.

First steps

If you want to add metaphors to your writing arsenal, I’d advise you read beyond the genres you enjoy. And not just fiction. The broader your knowledge of the world, the more good metaphors you will discover. Read literary fiction, history, science, travel. Not necessarily at once, but try something new and expand your horizons from there.

Look for opportunities to sprinkle metaphors into your prose. Then treat the metaphors as you would treat plot and dialogue. Refine them until they shine. As you become more comfortable with metaphors, look for opportunities to thread a dominant metaphor into your story to reinforce a theme.

Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does improve your writing. As you experiment with metaphors, however, I would offer some suggestions.

Guidelines for metaphors

  • No matter what effect you want to achieve, remember the literal dimension of your story must be believable and consistent.
  • Keep them simple. “His mother drove the vehicle of his despair,” delivers a cleaner and more compelling connection than “His mother was the dangerous driver, three sheets to the wind, speeding down the icy lanes of his despair.” (Unless you want to create a literary effect.)
  • Your metaphor should serve a purpose and fit the situation. No matter how attached you become to your metaphor, always ask if prosaic language won’t serve your story better. If a character makes your protagonist angry, but doesn’t motivate his actions, you’d be better off writing, “all she needed to make him angry, was to open her mouth.” (The metaphor, “all she needed to fuel his anger” would work too.)
  • Don’t mix metaphors. “She drove the vehicle across the rain clouds of despair” leaps from a concrete metaphor (vehicle) to a fantastic picture (car in the clouds) that makes little sense.
  • Avoid cliched metaphors. “His mother drove him crazy,” is not only cliche, it no longer functions as a metaphor.  Most readers will read through the phrase without noticing. (We often refer to them as dead metaphors.)
  • Make metaphors that resonate with readers. They should entertain and arrest your readers. You want them to take pleasure from the phrase, but also for the phrase to stick to their memory. When they’re looking for a metaphor appropriate to the current situation, yours is the one they should recall. Not every metaphor will succeed at this level but, as your craft improves, many will.
  • Look for opportunities to extend the metaphor. Once you introduce a metaphor into your story, compound and develop it with related images. Consider my earlier example, “city is infected.” I need not add more metaphors, I could build on the original by adding references to rotting leaves in gutters, plants withering in gardens, people coughing, a stranger walking past with a surgical mask.
  • Don’t browbeat your readers with metaphors. You’re still writing a story, and the story should balance every element to create its intended effect. You can overkill with metaphors as easily as ignore them. Try to limit your story to one thematic metaphor.[2]

Postscript: How do symbols fit into a story?

Many readers (and novice writers) confuse metaphors and symbols. The difference is small but significant. Symbols represent an idea or ideal, but the symbol’s vehicle isn’t directly connected to the underlying idea. Think of it as an image or object (occurring once or often) that the story doesn’t directly connect to the idea it represents.

If, at the end of Joe’s story, he drives out of town and notices “a field of Lillies turning toward the sun.” On the surface the Lillies add description and color to the ending, but the image of Lillies also represent hope. Symbol and metaphor often work together to broaden your theme. While the thematic metaphor might be “infection,” and the theme of the story “corruption,” the final note can end on a symbol of hope.

[1]: One of the best studies of metaphor’s cognitive features can be found in George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

[2]: I adapted several of these from Mark Nichol, “20 Great Similes from Literature to Inspire You,” Daily Writing Tips, April 13, 2011.




Phillip T. Stephens attended the writers’ workshop at Michigan State before teaching writing and design at Austin Community College for 20 years. His writing and art appear in anthologies, online, print and peer-reviewed academic journals. His work most recently appeared in the Kill Switch, Monsters We Forgot and Frozen Adornments anthologies, as well as Maintenant, Flash Fiction Weekly and Duende. He lives with Carol in Oak Hill, Texas where they built a habitat in the shade of their oaks to house foster cats for They found new homes for more than three hundred abandoned pets. You can find his work at



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