Making Metaphors, Part One

Aristotle says the ability to see one thing as another is the only truly creative human act.

Marble bust of Aristotle. Public domain.

Metaphors are not user-friendly. They are hard to find and hard to use well. Unfortunately, metaphor is a mainstay of good lyric writing; indeed, of most creative writing. From total snores like “break my heart” and “feel the emptiness inside” to awakening shocks like “the arc of a love affair” (Paul Simon), “feather canyons” (Joni Mitchell), “soul with no leak at the seam” (Peter Gabriel), and “Brut and charisma poured from the shadows” (Steely Dan), metaphors support lyrics like bone. The trick is to know how to build them.

In its most basic form, metaphor is a collision between ideas that don’t get along. It jams them together and leaves us to struggle with the consequences: for example, an army is a rabid wolf.

We watch the soldiers begin to snarl, grow snouts and foam at the teeth. The army disappears and we are left to face something red-eyed and dangerous. Of course, an army isn’t a wolf. All metaphors must be literally false. If the things we identify are the same (e.g., a house is a dwelling place), there is no metaphor, only definition. Conflict is essential for metaphor. Put things that don’t belong together in the same room, and watch the friction: dog with wind; torture with car; cloud with river. But, they create interesting overtones. Let’s look closer. There are three types of metaphor:

Expressed Identity — asserts an identity between two nouns, e.g., fear is a shadow; a cloud is a sailing ship.

Expressed identity comes in three forms:

“x is y” (fear is a shadow)
“The y or x” (the shadow of fear)
“x’s y” (fear’s shadow)

Run each of these through all three forms:

wind = yelping dog
wind = river
wind = highway

Now come up with a few of your own and run them through all three forms. You might even extend them into longer versions, e.g., clouds are sailing ships on rivers of wind.

Qualifying Metaphor — Adjectives qualify nouns; adverbs qualify verbs. Friction within these relationships creates metaphor, e.g., hasty clouds; to sing blindly.

Verbal Metaphor — formed by conflict between the verb and its subject and/or object, e.g., clouds sail; he tortured his clutch; frost gobbles summer down.

Aristotle says the ability to see one thing as another is the only truly creative human act. Most of us have the creative spark to make metaphors, we just need to train and direct our energy properly. Look at this metaphor from Shelley’s “Ode To The West Wind”: “A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed/ One too like thee…” Hours are links of a chain, accumulating weight and bending the old man’s back lower and lower as each new hour is added. An interesting way to look at old age …

Great metaphors seem to come in a flare of inspiration — there is a moment of light and heat, and suddenly the writer sees the old man bent over, dragging a load of invisible hour-chains. But even if great metaphors come from inspiration, you can certainly prepare yourself for their flaring. There are exercises that can train your vision; that can help you learn to look in the hot places; help you nurture a spark that can erupt into something bright and wonderful.


Like musical notes, words can group together in close relationships, like belonging to the same key. Call this a diatonic relationship. For example, here are some random words that are diatonic to (in the same key as) tide: ocean; moon; recede; power; beach.

This is “playing in the key of tide,” where tide is the fundamental tone. This is a way of creating collisions between elements that have at least some things in common—a fertile ground for metaphor. There are many other keys “tide” can belong to when something else is a fundamental tone, for example, power. Let’s play in its key: Muhammad Ali; avalanche; army; Wheaties; socket; tide.

All these words are related to each other by virtue of their relationship to “power.” If we combine them into little collisions we can often discover metaphors:

Muhammad Ali avalanched over his opponents.
An avalanche is an army of snow.
This army is the Wheaties of our revolution.
Wheaties plug your morning into a socket.
A socket holds back tides of electricity.

Try playing in the key of moon: stars; harvest; lovers; crescent; astronauts; calendar; tide.

The New Mexico sky is a rich harvest of stars.
Evening brings a harvest of lovers to the beach.
The lovers’ feelings waned to a mere crescent.
The crescent of human knowledge grows with each astronaut’s mission.
Astronauts’ flights are a calendar of human courage.
A new calendar washes in a tide of opportunities.

Essentially, metaphor works by revealing some third thing that two ideas share in common. One good way of finding metaphors is by asking these two questions:

1. What characteristics does my idea (“tide”) have?
2. What else has those characteristics?

Answering the second question usually releases a flood of possible metaphors.

Often the relationship between two ideas is not clear. “Muhammad Ali” is hardly the first idea that comes to mind with “avalanche,” unless you recognize their linking term, “power.” In most contexts, “Muhammad Ali” and “avalanche” are non-diatonic, unrelated to each other. Only when you look to find a link do you come up with “power,” or “deadly,” or “try to keep quiet when you’re in their territories.” Asking the two questions,

1. What characteristics does my idea (“tide”) have?
2. What else has those characteristics?

opens up these relationships and helps you develop metaphor-seeking habits. In the next issue we’ll look at a series of exercises guaranteed to tone your metaphorical muscles. Stay tuned.

Pat Pattison is a professor at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches lyric writing and poetry.