Playing the Long Game with Extended Metaphor
Writers have a lot of tools and devices at our disposal, nifty little tricks we can use to give our prose an extra oomph. Some pizazz. Some flair.
Extended metaphors are just one such literary device that can span an entire book. But this effective wordplay is more than a trick; it’s a technique you can use to craft a powerful message that lingers in your reader’s mind.
If you know how to use them, of course. That’s what we’re going to cover today. In this article, we will:
- Define metaphors and extended metaphors
- Look at the characteristics and impact of extended metaphors
- Check out some well-known examples of this literary device
- Cover some tips to help you write your own
Let’s dive into this writing technique and see what it can do for your writing.
Understanding Extended Metaphors
If we want to figure out what an extended metaphor is and how to use it, some would argue it would be rude of me to skip over what normal metaphors are. And since I don’t want you to think I’m rude, let’s start there.
If we turn to my pals at Merriam-Webster, we’ll find this definition of metaphor:
“A figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.”
Even for someone who works with words all day, every day, that definition is a bit dense. To put it a little more simply, a metaphor is a comparison of two things that are otherwise unrelated, where the qualities of one thing are carried over to the other.
Here are a few examples to clarify everything:
Time is a thief - Time doesn’t actually steal things from us, since it doesn’t have hands (not counting those on a clock). But, just as an actual thief steals important possessions, it feels like time steals precious moments from us.
It’s music to my ears - Usually reserved to describe things we like to hear that aren’t actually music. If you did say this about music, you’d be right… because music is music to all ears.
The classroom was a zoo - Without saying the classroom was chaotic, loud, messy, or wild, this metaphor tells us all we need to know by comparing it to something it can’t actually be.
Icing on the cake, calling someone a couch potato, calling America a melting pot, saying someone has a heart of gold—all of these are examples of simple or “mere” metaphors. While most of us were taught that metaphors are primarily a literary device, we use them in our everyday conversations without even thinking about it.
They add clarity to a description without bogging it down with multiple adjectives or lines of description by drawing on a common experience or familiar idea. That makes metaphors powerful additions to your writing, alongside other devices like similes, alliteration, personification, and more.
Defining Extended Metaphors
Since the above examples show you what a simple metaphor looks like, you might be able to guess what an extended metaphor is. But, just in case, here is a definition:
An extended metaphor is a metaphor that extends across a large part of a literary piece. This sustained metaphor could include multiple lines, an entire paragraph, whole pages, or the complete work.
Most importantly, extended metaphors go beyond a single point of comparison. When you wield this particular literary device, you revisit the comparison multiple times throughout the span of your work or at least a part of it, introducing varied ways that the two ideas are related.
This isn’t a one-and-done situation. But what does a good extended metaphor look like? I’m so glad you asked.
Characteristics of Effective Extended Metaphors
Crafting a potentially book-long literary device can be tough. In fact, it can be downright overwhelming. Some people struggle to craft a decent comparison that just takes up one line, much less multiple… or dozens!
I’m not trying to put people down, of course. Because metaphors are so integral to our everyday communication, we don’t think about them a lot outside of English class or our own writing. And if we aren’t approaching our storycraft with intention, we aren’t making the most of it.
So here are some characteristics of great extended metaphors.
Clarity and Accessibility
A metaphor, no matter how long, can’t be so complex that your readers can’t understand it. This means finding the perfect balance between intricate writing and understandability. Beta readers can be a great help with this.
Don’t try to make things more complicated than they have to be, either. You’re already adding depth with your metaphor, so focus on quality over complexity.
Part of keeping things uncomplicated is making sure you're consistent with your metaphor throughout your story.
William Shakespeare did a pretty good job with this in Romeo and Juliet when the titular loverboy refers to Juliet as the sun (But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun). Romeo then goes on to continue referring to Juliet as the sun and comparing some of her features to the heavens:
“The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars / As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven / Would through the airy region stream so bright / That birds would sing and think it were not night.”
Imagine if Romeo had mixed in three or four other metaphors in that famous speech? It wouldn’t have swooned nearly as many hearts.
Descriptive Language and Vivid Imagery
One element of metaphors that sets them apart from standard prose is how vivid your descriptions have to be. This is where you’re given the room and excuse to get intense with your imagery.
Not that you can’t use descriptive language elsewhere, of course, but metaphors excel when you paint them for your reader.
With extended metaphors, you don’t have to be so heavy-handed all at once. But you can bring a bit more emphasis to the drips of metaphor throughout your story with more evocative word choices.
Remember, the whole point of a metaphor is to draw on something the reader can understand. Comparing Juliet to the sun is so effective because we know what the sun is, what it represents, and what it can do.
Use your extended metaphor to tap into emotions and understanding for full effect.
Finally, these extra-large metaphors should tie into your story’s themes.
No, William Shakespeare didn’t have a theme about sunlight. But none of the themes in the story would make sense if we didn’t understand how downright in love those two teenagers were. Shakespeare uses, among other writing tools, extended metaphors to show us the depth of their love, making the book’s themes possible.
Impact of Extended Metaphors on Your Reader
Now that we know what extended metaphors should have, let’s discuss what they do. There needs to be things that set them apart from mere metaphors and other devices to make them worthwhile, right?
Luckily for us, there are!
At the risk of sounding repetitive, metaphors tap into things we can personally relate to. That’s what makes the comparison easy to understand.
But it goes beyond that. Metaphors, especially extended metaphors, tap into universal feelings and experiences: love, loss, struggle, triumph, etc. This in itself is enough to draw your reader in and make your story—even something as incredible as a fantasy epic—relatable.
Tack on the vivid imagery this literary device calls for, and you’re sure to have your readers hooked.
I know “cognitive engagement” is low on most artists’ wishlists for their art (except for maybe mystery authors), but it’s an important part of the craft.
Extended metaphors encourage readers to be actively engaged with your story as they make connections with your comparisons. Your descriptions stimulate their imagination and you start layering individual metaphors together to make something more complex.
The payoff? Your reader thinks more about all aspects of your book. Heck, maybe they even re-read it!
Lastly, extended metaphors can stick with your reader. When done right, a well-written, evocative comparison will be their go-to in their next conversation or it will pop up in their mind again and again.
Even better is how unique each reader’s interpretation can be. This literary device invites your audience to think about your writing and analyze it in their own way.
Bonus: extended metaphors drive book club conversations.
Examples of Extended Metaphors
Extended metaphors have been used across various forms of literature and media, and I’m sure you can think of a few. Just to make sure you have a solid grasp on this device, here are a few extended metaphor examples:
"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost
This famous poem serves as an extended metaphor for life's choices and their irreversible nature. The roads in the poem represent life's different paths, with the narrator's decision symbolizing a choice that defines the course of his life. The paths are metaphors for different life directions, emphasizing the impact of choices made and those left unexplored.
Frost's use of a simple fork in a road to symbolize life's complex decisions is a prime example of how extended metaphors can encapsulate broad, existential concepts in a relatable way.
I’m mostly including this because I watched it just before writing this article, but it works so well. In this horror-comedy film, the titular character Krampus—a fearsome creature from Central European folklore—becomes an extended metaphor for the loss of the Christmas spirit.
The monster's visit and the ensuing chaos all symbolize the consequences of losing sight of love, family, and the true essence of the holiday season. The movie explores themes of consumerism, family dysfunction, and the loss of innocence, turning an old holiday tale into a metaphor for modern societal issues.
"Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes
This poem uses a staircase as an extended metaphor for life's challenges, particularly in the context of the Black American experience. The "crystal stair" represents a life of ease and privilege that the mother has not known; instead, her path is full of obstacles, symbolizing the struggles and perseverance required to overcome adversity.
How to Use Extended Metaphors in Your Writing
Now that you’ve learned all about them, here are five tips to write your own extended metaphors:
1. Choose a relatable base concept. Select a metaphor base that your audience can easily understand and relate to. This could be a common experience, a universal emotion, or a familiar object. The clearer the base, the more impactful your extended metaphor will be.
2. Ensure consistency. An extended metaphor should be consistent throughout your piece. This means maintaining the same logic, tone, and imagery to create a successful extended metaphor from start to finish.
3. Balance subtlety with clarity. While subtlety can be a virtue in avoiding heavy-handedness, clarity is key in ensuring your readers can follow and appreciate the metaphor. Strike a balance where the metaphor is not overly explicit, yet its significance and parallels are clear to your audience.
4. Weave it into the narrative. Integrate your extended metaphor seamlessly into your story so it enhances your narrative, rather than distracts from it. The metaphor should serve as an undercurrent to theme or character development.
5. Use descriptive and evocative language. Employ vivid and evocative language to bring your metaphor to life. Rich descriptions will help paint a clearer picture in the reader's mind, making the metaphor more engaging and memorable.
Bonus Tip: Use Dabble to Help Craft an Extended Metaphor
My final piece of advice is to get yourself a writing tool that helps in every aspect of your craft—extended metaphors included.
In addition to character templates, co-author, goal setting, and anytime, anywhere writing and backups, you can use Dabble’s flexible Plot Grid to track your extended metaphors.
This makes sure you’re sprinkling just the right amount of literary goodness throughout your plot without hammering it over your reader’s head.
The best part? Click this link to try everything Dabble has to offer for 14 days! And the fact that you don’t have to put in any credit card info is just icing on the cake.
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