The Art of Metaphor

In its most basic sense metaphor is a figure of speech where something is used as a representation of something else, particularly when that something else is an abstraction. An abstraction is an idea that isn’t concrete or tangible. We can’t see, hear, smell, taste, or touch it. Freedom, absence, and truth are all abstractions.

In a broader sense metaphor is part of imagery, using words to evoke specific sensory experiences. Metaphor compares and links an unknown to something known, so that readers can understand the unknown. In essence, metaphor helps to bring insight into some aspect of the human predicament, the deep thematic truths that are the heart of a piece of writing.

There are two parts to a metaphor:

  1. Tenor– this is the thing that’s unknown; the abstraction; the truth/ideal to be illuminated and made concrete/tangible; the subject of the piece
  2. Vehicle– this is the image that’s created to make the unknown (the subject of the metaphor) known

Quick tidbit: Every simile is a metaphor, but not every metaphor is a simile. A simile compares two unlike things using “like,” “as,” or, “seems.” For example, “He was like a wet dog,” or, “She was as angry as a hurricane.”


Personification and allusion are both types of metaphor. While personification attributes human qualities to inanimate objects/ideas, allusion makes unacknowledged references to famous literature, art, mythology, politics, places, events, etc. With allusion, authors expect readers to pick up on and understand the reference without being overtly told it. In order to successfully make an allusion, you must know your audience.

An example of personification is, “The flowers danced in the wind.” Dancing is a human attribute. To describe the movement of the flowers we relate it to something humans understand and can picture: dancing.

An example of allusion is, “Don’t be Romeo.” Romeo is referring to the protagonist, Romeo, in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

As much as metaphor can be explained, recognizing and creating metaphor is not something that can be learned from others. In order to create metaphor, a writer must be able to perceive similarity. He must be able to see correspondence, the perception of similarity where there isn’t any.

Metaphor is a great way to boost your writing. Done well it can take your writing to the next level.

How do you use metaphor?

(Photo courtesy of Marketing for Hippies.)

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