12 June 2006

How to train your metaphors

After taking in an audiobook of How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell (already optioned by DreamWorks, apparently because it's Shrek-like), I felt a pressing need to hunt down a list of bad metaphors I'd once read. And I found them at Funny2.com: a whole page of Questionable Analogies. Some samples:

Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the center. (Russell Beland, Springfield)

His fountain pen was so expensive it looked as if someone had grabbed the pope, turned him upside down and started writing with the tip of his big pointy hat. (Jeffrey Carl, Richmond)

He felt like he was being hunted down like a dog, in a place that hunts dogs, I suppose. (unknown)

Sometimes some of these lines are spread 'round the 'net as examples of poor student writing--evidence for each generation's smug belief that today's students are vastly worse than themselves. But it’s obvious that the authors of the lines were trying to create bad metaphors. If students had created them, they'd be signs of the ability to write, or at least to distinguish bad writing when it really matters. But in fact internal evidence suggests that Washington Post readers created many of these lines for the paper’s “Style International” column, retired in 1999.

What made me wish to seek deliberately bad metaphors as avidly as I wish to stop the Four Tops’ version of “Macarthur Park” from playing in the back of my brain? That Dragon book. This is a comic fantasy in exaggerated, crowd-pleasing style. (Well, boy-pleasing; there are no girls to be found.) It’s supposed to be told in the voice of an aged Viking warrior looking back on his youth.

Yet How to Train Your Dragon tells us that the glowworms illuminating a cavern of sleeping dragons resembled an array of low-wattage light bulbs. Apparently this book's Vikings not only made it to North America before Christopher Columbus, but they also developed light bulbs before Thomas Edison.

Metaphors don't just float in empty space like a bubble. They float in empty space like a GPS satellite, part of an interlaced system of imagery. They help to establish the mood, tone, and setting of stories. The two things that a metaphor compares (technically, the “tenor” and the “burden,” though I don’t recall which is which) have to resemble each other in a crucial way. But they should also fit with the story’s overall milieu. Otherwise, the metaphor stands out like bullet on a birthday cake and undercuts the story's verisimilitude.

So now I wish to cleanse my palate with a generous gulp of good metaphors. Luckily, I have P. G. Wodehouse's The Mating Season on my iPod. Wodehouse novels are an excellent place to start a simile hunt. But of course they're an excellent place for a great many things.

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