Good figurative writing is electrifying.
It adds beauty and depth to your prose in a way literal language struggles to match.
But the challenge of good figurative language is that it doesn’t come from your head — it comes from your gut.
You don’t sit there and systematically craft metaphors by analyzing and connecting two separate ideas; instead, you let your intuition take the wheel, and you follow it down any and every dimly lit street, until you reach its intended destination.
Sometimes that destination is beautiful and inspiring. Other times (oftentimes) it’s a horrible, ugly place that should never see the light of day.
But the trick is this: to write good, natural figurative language, you need to let your intuition run wild, because for every few bad metaphors you write, a great one will emerge — and that’ll be the spark that brings your image or scene to life.
Nobody illustrates this process better than Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society.
Empowering your gut to write better figurative language
In the above scene, Todd is the writer, and the class is his inner critic. His writing is stifled by their laughter and judgment, and he’s afraid to follow his gut on strange images, such as “truth like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.”
But Mr. Keating (Robin Williams, God bless him) pushes Todd to ignore the class, putting a hand over Todd’s eyes and giving commands like, “Don’t think — answer!” and, “Say the first thing that pops into your head, even if it’s total gibberish!” Mr. Keating gives Todd permission to run with the wildest of impulses — and the end result is a fascinating string of figurative language and images, ranging from “sweaty-toothed mad man” to his full elaboration on the blanket of truth.
To write better figurative language, you need to be your own Mr. Keating. You need to give yourself permission to write (and pursue) gibberish, so that something artful and organic may jump out of you.
Here’s some advice on how to make that happen.
1. Start with freewriting
Freewriting is an exercise where you write for a short period of time without a filter, without editing, and without stopping. The goal is to shut down your inner editor and make fresh connections between ideas — which makes it great for figurative writing, especially if you tend to struggle with metaphors and similes. The next time you’re working on a scene, take just 5 minutes to freewrite some relevant similes and metaphors. Most will be nonsensical, but you’ll often come away with at least one great idea.
2. Write similes before metaphors
If your goal is to write metaphors, I suggest you start by writing similes. The word “like” is a helpful bridge, making it easier to form initial connections between unrelated ideas. Then, in revision, you can experiment with deleting the word “like” if you want to double down with a metaphor.
3. Trust the connection is there
When your subconscious makes a connection between two unrelated ideas, know that there is a connection, even if it seems completely random on the surface. Your subconscious wouldn’t have made the connection if there wasn’t something there — you just need to find it. Which brings me to #4.
4. Don’t judge a rabbit hole before diving in
Remember in the scene above how Todd initially shies away from the idea that truth is like “a blanket that leaves your feet cold”? The class laughs, but Mr. Keating encourages Todd to go further, and further, until Todd finally stumbles into a fully-realized simile that silences everyone. Just like the class, you might think your figurative language is dumb at first, but always take a few minutes to go down the rabbit hole and explore its potential.
5. Ask yourself questions
When you’re trying to explore and develop a piece of figurative language, ask yourself questions as Mr. Keating asks Todd:
What do you see? “A mad man.” What kind? “A crazy mad man.” You can do better. “A sweaty-toothed mad man.” Describe what you see. “A sweaty-toothed mad man with a stare that pounds my brain.” That’s excellent. Give him action. “And all the time he’s mumbling.” What’s he mumbling? “Mumbling truth. Truth like a blanket that leaves your feet cold.” Tell me about that blanket. — And so on.
Even if it feels like you’re going in circles, keep riffing and elaborating upon the idea until you land on something that works.
O Captain! My Captain!
To quote Mr. Keating, who in turn quotes Whitman: “The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
Whatever your verse, I hope figurative language plays a part.
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