An excellent way to improve your creative writing is through the judicious use of metaphors. Most poems, for example, contain at least one metaphor, and many are nothing more than a single extended metaphor. They can also spice up prose fiction, too, by conveying abstract ideas in concrete language.
Many metaphors depend heavily on symbolism. That is, they compare an abstract thing to a concrete one by assigning qualities to the latter that have pre-existing symbolic associations for the reader. In this way, it is possible to create a metaphor by picking an abstract noun and a concrete one almost at random.
Emotions are abstract, so let’s pick one – hate.
Now, let’s pick a concrete noun – glove.
If I simply write “hate is a glove.” The metaphor doesn’t work. But if I add a few details to it, this will change. The color black is associated with evil, darkness, hatred, so let’s start there: “hate is a black glove.” Slightly more promising, but it still needs some work. Well, one of the physical effects of thinking about something you hate is a certain tightness in the chest, a tensing of muscles. So how about “hatred is a black glove stretched tight.” That’s much better, but now the sentence is incomplete. We need to say what the glove is stretched over. A hand, obviously but what sort of hand? And what will the hand represent? If the glove is an emotion, then it affects our minds or souls, so the hand would probably be associated with that. What effect does hatred have on us? There are many possible answers, but here I’ll say it makes us weaker, kills us spiritually. And what happens when something sickens and begins to die. It gets pale. So, this gives us “Hatred is a black glove stretched tight over a pale hand.” Now we have a metaphor that compares hate to a glove, and in so doing explains that hatred is a negative emotion that suffocates our soul and sickens us. Note that, once you have a good metaphor, you can expand it almost indefinitely. That hand could clench into a fist, for example.
The most important point about the above example is that the metaphor I constructed relies on pre-existing associations with “black,” “tight,” and “pale.” I didn’t have to be particularly original – I just had to come up with ways to connect these qualities to the object I picked. I could have done this for any object:
Hatred is a glass of cracked onyx, filled to the brim with bitter poison.
Or any emotion, though of course the symbolic qualities then change:
Love is a white and red notebook, in which only our virtues are recorded.
Metaphors can also help your academic writing, but you have to be more careful – a good metaphor can appeal strongly to the emotions, which may cloud the logic of the argument you are trying to make. Nevertheless, metaphors can be useful in helping the reader to grasp abstract of abstruse concepts by explaining them through reference to something more concrete or easier to understand.
Consider, for example, the greenhouse effect often cited as the cause of global warming. This is in fact a metaphor. Greenhouses work by allowing solar heat to pass through the clear plastic walls faster than it can escape through the insulation in those walls. Carbon dioxide doesn’t enter into it, as far as most greenhouses are concerned. It’s not even that CO2 functions in the upper atmosphere in a similar way to the plastic on a greenhouse – it doesn’t. Greenhouses trap warm air in a confined space. CO2 doesn’t do this. What it does instead is to reflect a certain amount of solar radiation back in the direction it came from. This actually prevents some of the radiation from the sun from reaching us. The radiation that does reach us is absorbed by the planet, and then released back out into space as heat. However, some of this heat is also reflected back to the surface of the Earth by the CO2 in the atmosphere. Over time this heat can accumulate, warming the planet. The point of this example is that the greenhouse effect actually involves principles that are very different from those that warm an actual greenhouse. The term is a metaphor, one that allows us to understand easily the effects of CO2 in the atmosphere, even if the scientific reasons for that effect are very different from the process that take place in a real greenhouse.