Extended Metaphor

I have to start with a funny story:  My first paranormal romance, TASTE ME (2011), is about an incubus security specialist, Lukas Sebastiani, who finally learns to trust his love for Scarlett Fontaine, a siren rock star who can manipulate his emotions with her song. While discussing final tweaks to the manuscript at 2010 RWA National, my then-editor grinned at me, clasped her hands against her heart, and said, “And you completed the extended metaphor!” (At the end of the book, Lukas “boldly crashed his ship into the cliffs,” confessing his love for Scarlett. Because…sirens, right?)

“Of course I did,” I replied. “There is no metaphor I can’t extend until it snaps.”

Unfortunately, this is true – especially in early drafts.  

Metaphors, and extended metaphors, are abundant in romance fiction, especially in love scenes. They’re among our most effective and evocative tools. We use them all the time, sometimes without being entirely aware of it.

There’s nothing wrong with being aware of it! Indeed, it’s to your readers’ benefit that you’re aware of it, because well-crafted metaphors – careful and conscious word choice – can add so much to a reader’s experience.

First, some quick definitions:

A metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies one thing as being the same as some unrelated other thing, thus strongly implying similarities between the two.

An extended metaphor is when an author exploits a single metaphor or analogy at length through multiple linked vehicles, tenors, and grounds.

In this post, I’ll focus on extended metaphor, which, craft-wise, requires we choose specific words to evoke the selected metaphor over sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, books – whatever our “linked vehicle” may be – to produce a particular emotional reaction.

An easy way to get a feel for the concept is to study poems or song lyrics. So…here comes my spirit animal, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, to the rescue! Specifically, I refer to the Foos’ 2014 Sonic Highways project.

The creative conceit behind Sonic Highways is that the Foo Fighters traveled to a different American city each week for eight weeks, interviewing musicians and exploring the city’s musical heritage, then they wrote and recorded a song before leaving the city. That’s ONE FINISHED SONG PER WEEK, folks. Talk about deadline pressure! My example, Subterranean, came out of the Seattle session, where, sadly, so many grunge-era musicians died from drug overdoses – including Dave’s former Nirvana bandmate, Kurt Cobain.

Dave couldn’t go to Seattle and not address this topic – and for a man who  never finished high school, he teaches an extended metaphor master class here, evoking dirt, and mines, and burial to explore death and resurrection in context with relationships and career. Seattle’s famously rainy, gloomy weather gets a nod here; musical guest Ben Gibbard (from Death Cab for Cutie) says that if you live in Seattle, you spend a lot of time indoors, underground in basements. Subterranean. And the song came from there.

Here’s the ballad, with lyrics conveniently superimposed (6:08). Watch. Listen. Think about the themes suggested by Dave’s extended metaphor:

Can Dave dig his way out? Can he go this alone? Can he begin again? The song doesn’t tie things up in a pretty little bow by any means, but given the Foo Fighters are considered shoo-ins for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in their first year of eligibility (2020), I’d say things look good. 😉

The composition is complex, featuring diminished chords and a plaintive lead guitar. The bass line is a pick axe, pulling the song along.

Absolutely gorgeous. 

Need another example? Take a look at “Something From Nothing,”also by Foo Fighters. Another song off the Sonic Highways album, it’s laden with extended metaphor invoking fire, destruction, sparks and ambition. Is it any coincidence that this song was recorded in Chicago, home of 1871’s Great Chicago Fire? I think not. 😉

Some other great examples: 

“Every Breaking Wave” by U2. Waves, the tides, chasing every breaking wave… A song about making mistakes, and perhaps learning from them. 

“The Road Less Traveled”  – the poem by Robert Frost, about choices. The last three lines are killer:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The “All the world’s a stage” monologue from “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare, which compares the world to a stage, life to a play, and us to actors.

Dirt, fire, breaking waves…lonesome roads and theatrical stages… Notice how, in all these examples, small and private human moments become larger, more elemental? When we use metaphor, personal moments become universal moments – moments everyone can relate to.

Consider the romance novels you’ve written, or those you’ve read. How many metaphors have we come across describing an orgasm? Crashing waves, galloping horses, tsunamis of sensation, shattering glass, shooting geysers (OK, eww) but metaphors abound. And there’s a reason for this, right? No matter how tame or hot the love scene, use a good metaphor and anyone who’s ever had an orgasm can relate.

Can you think of a metaphor or extended metaphor, either from your own work or someone else’s, that, to you, made a great scene even more memorable? That turned a serviceable description sublime?

I’d love to see some of your favorite examples in the comments!


P.S. Are you going to be in Minneapolis Saturday afternoon Nov. 12? I’m teaching a workshop at The Loft Literary Center called  “Scene + Structure = Story: A Plotting Technique for Advanced Novelists,” and I’d love to see you there!

To register, click here.  

18 responses to “Extended Metaphor”

  1. Kathy Crouch says:

    Hi Tammy,
    Currently I’m hooked on Lindsey Stirling’s album Brave Enough. Her song by the same name, Brave Enough, enticed me to use it for my October Obsession book Brave Enough for Love. But she has on song where the singer sings, “I don’t need a man to hold my hand, I need a man to hold my heart.” I might not have the lyrics exactly right but that’s a cool line. In the title song Brave Enough, Christina Perri sings “I wish I was, I wish I was brave enough to love you.” A lot of her music is instrumentals but the ones with lyrics are cool. Something Wild with Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness had a metaphor like you’re talking about listen to it and see if you catch it.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Kathy, I didn’t know Lindsey Sterling had a new album out! I just listened to “Brave Enough.” Gorgeous, painful song. Anyone who’s had their heart broken will understand.

  2. Great blog, Tami! I love seeing a metaphor or even a running joke carry throughout a novel.

  3. Love this post, Tamara! So thought-provoking. And to think I used to groan when my senior-year English teacher yammered on about metaphors in the books we were reading. Now, they’re so fascinating to me. I feel like metaphor, or repetition of some kind, really brings a book together. It delights me, as a reader, when I can pick out a thread that unites the story.

    Examples are escaping me at the moment (I’m still working on that first cup of coffee this morning). If I think of one, I’ll post it! 🙂

  4. Great post, Tamara! And I love your line:
    “When we use metaphor, personal moments become universal moments – moments everyone can relate to.”

    I know I use them, and try not to mix them or they get diluted in a scene.

    Thanks for reminding me to use this powerful tool : )

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Thanks, Heather!

      I wrote a lot of short-form poetry when I was in college, which, in hindsight, trained me to be very precise with word choice. This experience helps a lot with crafting metaphors.

  5. Rita Henuber says:

    Thank you Tammy. I love your posts. Like Laurie and Anne I so enjoy well thought out, book long metaphors. Wish I could be there for your workshop.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Thanks, Rita! I figured if I wasn’t publishing, I might try developing a workshop. I was so glad when The Loft accepted my proposal. For a “literary” center, they’re doing some very solid branching out into genre fiction.

  6. EXCELLENT post, Tammy. I too like your line, “When we use metaphor, personal moments become universal moments – moments everyone can relate to.”

    I love when metaphors are used in books, films, music– a very powerful tool. I don’t have an example from my own work, but I’ve been reading Hemingway’s works this past month and I believe he is a master at metaphors.

    Again, great post. You have me thinking how I can write an extended metaphor into my current project.

  7. Vivi Andrews says:

    Great post, Tammy. I love doing things like using musical metaphors in books about musicians and cooking metaphors in books with chefs, just to really show that those parts of their lives slip into every aspect of POV.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Right?! Metaphor is particularly effective when used in deep point of view, where they illustrate a characters’ most natural and intimate thoughts.

      My next book, whenever it comes out, features a vampire physician, a hematologist (of course). Many of Wyland’s most instinctive, natural references are blood- and body-oriented. It was fun trying to find metaphors that would feel natural to him, yet not leave readers feeling too squeamish. 😉

  8. Elisa Beatty says:

    Very cool post, Tammy! I hadn’t thought about extended metaphors unifying a book, but it’s a great idea.

  9. Beautiful, intellectual post, but let’s talk turkey: Kurt didn’t die of an overdose. One could argue that heroin didn’t help his mental health, but there was a small matter of a shotgun to the head…


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