Metaphors & Patricia A. McKillip: Day 30 of Project 365

Patricia McKillip

But you must stop playing among his ghosts — it’s stupid and dangerous and completely pointless. He’s trying to lay them to rest here, not stir them up, and you seem eager to drag out all the sad old bones of his history and make them dance again. It’s not nice, and it’s not fair.” – Patricia A. McKillip, Winter Rose

Stop. Read the quote the again and really picture her words.

How does it make you feel?

Patricia McKillip, another favorite author of mine, has written many fantasy books known for their lyricism and bright imagination. Her writing, as you can tell, is rife with creative imagery and dances across the page.

She is one of my major inspirations for concisely poetic writing.

In this quote, she takes a simple situation: the person in question keeps bringing up the old man’s past when he’d rather not talk or think about it.

But when I read the passage, I see what amounts to a ballet dance of sad bones swirling about the old man, while the girl is poking the bones curiously from the side. It’s absolutely beautiful.

McKillip’s skills with metaphors are commendable. Similes, in my mind, are easier than metaphors. We state clearly to the reader: Look, this one thing is kinda like this other thing, though they are obviously not the same.

With metaphors, we as writers have the tricky job of calling one thing by a different name altogether, with no real word-clues like “as” or “like”. We have to make our comparison understandable, believable, and something completely new and exciting to the reader.

1. Understandable: The reader needs to “get” what you’re trying to say. If you go too far outside of the bounds, you might just lose your reader completely. If, for creative reasons, you do not want your reader to “get” it, be absolutely sure you are doing it with a purpose (though if you pull this trick a too many times a reader might just put the book down)

2. Believable: there must be connections between what you are comparing that make sense to the reader and make sense inside the world of your story. If you are writing science fiction or fantasy (and genres of that nature), your rules of “believability” are what you have established throughout your work.

3. New & Exciting: Most readers can sense a cliche from a mile away (did you catch that one?). Because our writing comes from within, it is often harder to see cliches in our own writing. If this is a concern for you (I know this is the one I personally struggle with the most), take a second look at all your images you’ve created and ask yourself: “Have I seen this before?” and “How often?”

If you have a metaphor that you are unsure of, check them against a series of other people and ask if they make sense. I would be sure to have a sample size of more than one person, however. What makes no sense to one person might be completely logical to another. Be sure to listen to their responses, but you, as the writer, must decide where you draw the line with your feedback.

What are some successful metaphors you have done?

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One thought on “Metaphors & Patricia A. McKillip: Day 30 of Project 365

  1. Great post! I have just started reading ‘I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World’ by James Geary. It also has some good insights into the use of metaphor.

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