A Writing Lesson: All the Light We Cannot See – Using Metaphors Well
In an earlier post, I shared with you some great examples of similes from Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel. (ICYMI, you can find the post here.) Why am I talking about Doerr’s use of figurative language?
- Because the man writes mind-blowing phrases—he won a Pulitzer, for heaven’s sake
- Because figurative language is hard to do well
- Because when done well, figurative language helps your reader connect to your book and REMEMBER your book.
Because we already discussed similes, today we’re focusing on a few examples of his metaphors. In case you need a refresher, a metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things that doesn’t use like or as.
Consider this description: “The city was dark and looked dangerous to the bombardiers.” This will not win recognition in a small-town writing contest, let alone a Pulitzer, but it does try to convey a sense of what’s happening and what the bombardiers see, right? Are you going to remember it? Nope.
So consider this, from chapter 2 of All the Light: “To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”
First, Doerr decides to compare the city to a rotten tooth, which is pretty cool and fairly vivid, right? But he doesn’t stop there. In fact, he doesn’t call it a rotten tooth; he calls it an “unholy tooth.” How much better is that? It still conjures the image of the rotting tooth, but it also pulls into your mind the idea of “holy” vs. “unholy”—possibly of Satan himself. You’re not only seeing something with this phrase, you’re feeling something too.
Doerr doesn’t stop there, though, does he? He continues the metaphor of the rotten tooth with the phrase, “a final abscess to be lanced away.” It’s not just a rotten—unholy—tooth. It’s infected. It’s filled with pus, and it needs to be lanced and destroyed. Did you squirm at all, thinking about that? If so, good. That’s what he wanted.
Think about the different levels within you, the reader, that he reached with that short description. You could see the rotten tooth and the abscess, right? That’s a great image. But you also felt something, viscerally, inside with the use of “unholy,” didn’t you? And then he finishes it off by making you squirm, by making you think about the pain associated with a rotten, abscessed tooth.
Let’s look at one more.
Here’s the blah version: “She looked tired and had dark circles under her eyes.” Heck, I think I’ve actually written that in one of my books, or something very similar. It’s a safe description; it gets the job done. We’ve all seen someone who looks like this at some point—maybe even in the mirror at times, yes? But will you remember that description? Probably not.
But what about this one, from chapter 41: “Frau Elena: strands of hair stuck to her cheeks, maroon aprons under her eyes …”
Doerr is saying the same thing I said in my blah version, isn’t he? Frau Elena has dark circles under her eyes. But that’s not how he describes them. In his talented hands the dark circles become “aprons.” Again, a specific shape to paint in your mind, a new way to think about those dark circles. And instead of calling them “dark,” he says “maroon,” which is not only different but also likely more accurate. Those circles can look maroon in color, right?
When we look at gifted writers’ writing and we analyze what they do, we can sometimes feel as if we’ll never get there. We’ll never write THAT well. And maybe we won’t. We can’t all win a Pulitzer, after all. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
So how do we try?
- Analyze your own writing, when you’re in the revision stage.
- Look for ordinary, boring, blah versions of phrases you’ve probably written ten times before.
- Think about those ho-hum phrases.
- Can you say it differently?
- Can you think about it visually?
- Can you convey that vision with words?
- Can you push that vision even further?
Yes, you can.
We need to push ourselves as writers, and as your editor, I need to push you to be the best writer you can be. Which is what I try to do, each and every time. Curious about working with me? Do you have some questions about the editing process or writing in general? Are you ready to hire an editor to help you polish your draft? Send me an email at email@example.com and tell me what’s going on in your literary life, and let me see how I can help.
As always, I look forward to hearing from you and I’d love to read your thoughts and comments below.