f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 3 of Details – Another Kind of Description

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Day 3 of Details – Another Kind of Description

Sometimes details aren’t enough. Either the thing you’re describing is too convoluted to capture or mere words sound dull bringing out its essence. In cases like this writers often turn to another form of detail—the metaphor.

Metaphors, well, metaphors can be seen as a metaphor for novels themselves. (Or a synecdoche since they’re part of the whole. I don’t know.) When metaphors are done well they transcend the words that compose them. They illuminate and expand, in a flash, that which they capture.

In the way a novel can capture a life in 300 pages, a metaphor can capture something indescribable in ten words.

On the flipside though, the way a novel can plod and bog, a metaphor can sink under its own intentions/pretensions. Or simply not make sense.

When I think of metaphors in writing I think of two gentlemen: Raymond Chandler and Tom Robbins.

Here’s Chandler in The Big Sleep (which is a metaphor itself) on orchids: "Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption." If that doesn’t make you want to take two fingers of whiskey and call the next woman you see a "dame," we can’t be friends.

Tom Robbins, well, I don’t have his books in front of me, but open to almost any page and you’ll find a manic, imaginative metaphor that will evoke something in your mind (often something mildly corrupt), if not precisely what he wants.

I think there are at least a couple of good recipes for great metaphors. One thing they almost all rely on however is surprise. Six-day-old Diet Coke is perhaps the only thing flatter than a lame metaphor.

How you achieve that surprise is the test of the metaphor. Do you go for hyperbole? For oxymoron? For paradox?

Are there metaphors (or authors) that spring to mind in this discussion? Post your favorites.