Mix Your Cocktails…Not Your Metaphors
As a freelance editor, and avid reader, I wanted to write a series of articles to help writers hone their craft more effectively. This will be one such post.
At university, one writing mistake I made a few times before learning my lesson—doled out by brilliant red ink—was the mixing of metaphors. I’m not saying there’s never a time when it might be effective to do this, but for the most part, mixed metaphors come across as two unlike ideas which clunk against each other clumsily instead of flowing together into one smooth, cohesive picture inside the reader’s mind.
A metaphor can be a great tool for bringing an image to life inside the mind of your reader. Basically, a metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things to more vividly drive home the point an author is trying to make. It should be said a metaphor differs from a simile in that, while making a similar comparison, a simile will contain the word ‘like,’ while a metaphor will not. An example of a metaphor would be:
My life had become a rollercoaster of peril, my illness rust which ate away at the tracks, causing every day to derail and crash from great height into the depths of utter misery.
Now, if I mixed that metaphor, say by trying to combine the imagery of the rollercoaster with the ocean, the line would become less effective and create a picture that would appear illogical in the reader’s mind:
My life had become a rollercoaster of peril, my illness a wave which drug me down into depths void of light and sea life.
Imagine a reader pausing to picture a rollercoaster rising from the ocean and scratching his head. This is an example of a mix which simply doesn’t work.
If you want to employ metaphor, it’s best to stick with cohesive imagery, whether it be a rodeo, a circus, the desert, a starry sky, the moon, etc. for the entire section or paragraph. Some writers carry a metaphor throughout an entire book. If you plan to embark on such an arduous task, just remember to keep it consistent or it may ruin the effect.
This isn’t to say there aren’t instances where a mixed metaphor wouldn’t work. For instance, I really love this one posted by Pig in a Jacket on http://dailymixedmetaphor.blogspot.ca/ : Don't judge a book until you've walked a mile in its dust jacket. Clever mixes of metaphors can work too, just watch doing it in such a way as described above. I’ll give you another example of something that doesn’t work, using the ocean and a dragon:
My temper rose like a tsunami with the force of the entire ocean behind it, fiery and hot like dragon’s breath, I unleashed it without mercy on the first person to cross my path.
That simply creates a confusing image inside one’s head. Try to do this when writing: play the entirety of your metaphor out inside your head like a movie (simile!). Does the picture make sense? If it seems silly to you, most likely it will to your reader too ;).