The Five-Car Metaphor Pile-Up

On George Orwell and the uses and overuses of metaphors

Since my last couple newsletters were about the business of publishing—here’s one on book sales and another on book lengths—I realized it’s been a while since I wrote an actual craft post. So I thought I’d talk about a craft topic that’s as big as the ocean, as intense as the surface of the sun, that towers like a skyscraper, and is the vital blood pumping through the veins of literature: metaphors. Or, more specifically, overusing them.

(Cue pedantic comments from secondary school English teachers about how half of those “are similes not metaphors!!”)

I’m a sucker for metaphors. The more bizarre the better. A part of me suspects my love of noir fiction stems entirely from Raymond Chandler’s bizarre metaphors:

  • [laughter] like a tractor backfiring

  • a face like a collapsed lung

  • he said, in a voice the size of a marble

  • I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars

  • he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake

Etc.

In my own writing, I reach for metaphors like crutches—like walking sticks, like buttresses, like, uh, Hamburger Helper for prose—so often that a lot of my editing time is spent cutting them back. The reason for this is not because I think the metaphors I write are bad, though sometimes they are. Rather it is because metaphors have the most power when they are used sparingly. When they have some space around them. When they are like a single burning candle in a dark room.

The right metaphor provides a visual image—or other sensory evocation—that helps the reader “see” something. It might be what a character looks like, how someone behaves, or even an abstract mood or emotion. (“I was sad” might not evoke sadness as effectively as “it felt like my heart was being wadded up like a piece of paper and tossed in the trash.”) A good metaphor lingers in the reader’s mind, past the sentence it is written in. At least if it is given the space to do so.

Although I instinctively understood the power of metaphors, I didn’t really think about how exactly they worked until I read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” I love this essay. It’s my version of The Elements of Style, in that I think about Orwell’s stylistic rules all the time. I don’t agree with all of them of course, and the essay is also somewhat out of date in that Orwell was focused on political and nonfiction writing in 1940s England. The issues in political and nonfiction writing in 2021 America are, unsurprisingly, different. And fiction is a whole nother matter.

Still, he says a lot in the essay I think about frequently and one of those things is his discussion of metaphors. Here he diagnoses “dying metaphors”:

A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g. iron resolution ) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a "rift," for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.

This passage was the first time I ever actually encountered an explanation of the real problem of clichés. Before this, I’d been told clichés were bad because they were lazy. That writers need to be unique and original. Which, sure, I agree with, but all writers must deploy unoriginal phrases. Boring and cliché sentences have their uses. But here Orwell explains how, when it comes to metaphors, clichés are bad because the metaphors literally don’t work. The reader doesn’t “see” the image at all. Only dull words. We can add our own contemporary dying metaphors like “threw under the bus” here. I read that phrase almost every week, and I definitely don’t actually visualize someone being thrown under the wheels of an approaching vehicle.

(My one quibble with this passage is that metaphors don’t have to be visual. They can evoke the other senses too.)

Hell, half the time the reader doesn’t even know what the image in a dying metaphor is supposed to be, as Orwell mentions the (still common) confusion with “tow the line.” The writer or speaker of this phrase knows it means to conform to some rules or standards, often from a group like a political party. But what even is the visual image they are thinking of? A tugboat towing a conformist through the ocean? The origin of the proper “toe the line” apparently isn’t even known, though it’s about putting your toes on some kind of line when commanded to.

This is a long way of getting me to the thing I meant to write about at the beginning here: the five-car metaphor pile-up. This is a very common issue I see with young writers. I get it. Young writers are exploring their literary powers and excited to write as many great lines down as they can. They might even think the ideal way to write is to have ever line be a perfect jewel. And so they end up writing something like this:

It felt like my heart was being hit with a million tiny hammers. I vibrated with rage and despair. My veins were humming with angry light. I wanted to scream like a trapped eagle, desperate to fly free. “You bastard!” I roared like a hungry bear just awoken from hibernation, “You broke my heart!”

Now of course you might think all those lines are bad—I’m just writing some nonsense here—but either way throwing them all together makes a complete mess. You are asking the reader to conjure image after image to explain the same feeling. Instead you end up explaining nothing. The writer is so in love with their individual lines that they aren’t thinking about how they work together. So they produce a jumble of conflicting images.

But I don’t even think the conflicting images in the real issue. It’s inelegant, and perhaps ineffective to have your metaphors thematically all over the place. Still, the real issue is the reader is the sheer number of metaphors. The passage would still be bad even if the metaphors all cohered (I wanted to scream like a trapped eagle. My anxiety felt like feathers tickling my entire body. I punched the wall with a sound like the cracking of an enormous egg or whatever).

The absolute funniest example of this I’ve ever seen was from Ernest Cline, who doesn’t even bother to write original metaphorical images. He just writes references. Reference after reference after reference. From his novel Armada:

In that moment, I felt like Luke Skywalker surveying a hangar full of A-, Y-, and X-wing Fighters just before the Battle of Yavin. Or Captain Apollo, climbing into the cockpit of his Viper on the Galactica’s flight deck. Or Ender Wiggin arriving at battle school. Or Alex Rogan, clutching his Star League uniform, staring wide-eyed at a hangar full of Gunstars.

But this wasn’t a fantasy. I wasn’t Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon or Ender Wiggin or anyone else. This was real life.

This to me is an utter mess. It’s both lazy, in that Cline merely references things without actually doing any imagery himself, and also a big ol’ metaphor pile-up. If you told me Cline had some bet with his editor about how many references he could cram into a paragraph, I might believe you.

Then again, Cline is a rich bestselling author so maybe good prose doesn’t matter at all. D’oh.

Still, if you care about your prose I think it is good to remember that metaphors need breathing room. They need space to grow in the reader’s mind. You don’t have to kill all your darlings, but when you spare one make sure to give it a little room to run around.