Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Making Metaphors

By Kami Kinard, @kamikinard

Part of the How They Do It Series

Writers paint word pictures--very large word pictures--and to do that, we need every shape and size brush we can find. Author Kami Kinard visits the lecture hall today with advice on one of those brushes, and how we can make the most of our metaphors.

Kami is the author of The Boy Problem: Notes and Predictions of Tabitha Reddy (Scholastic 2014) and The Boy Project: Notes and Observations of Kara McAllister, (Scholastic 2012). Prior to the publication of her novels, she was published in some of the world’s best children’s magazines including Ladybug, Babybug, and Jack And Jill. A former educator, Kinard co-founded Kidlit Summer School Nerdy Chicks Write. She blogs year round at Nerdy Chicks Rule. She lives with her family in Beaufort SC where she teaches writing courses for children and adults.

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Take it away Kami...

Artist: Corinne Mullen
We are writers. The page is our canvas. We paint pictures with words.

We are writers. Our imaginations are vast. Endless. Bottomless. But our job is to be surgeon-precise. Our readers are only able to see that the yellow swallowtail’s wing is edged with black lace if we say it just so.

We must, therefore, embrace metaphors.

As most of you know, a metaphor is a figure of speech that compares or associates two unlike things. Perhaps ironically, comparing unlike things, like butterflies and lace above, encourages a more precise visual image than a string of words that simply describes the edge of the swallowtail’s wing as black with white dots.

When I teach writing courses, I’m often surprised at how much time my students have spent creating excellent characters and story-worthy problems and how very little time they have spent bringing their language alive through the use of metaphors and other types of figurative language. Once, while trying to impress upon my students the importance of metaphors, I conducted a little experiment. I went to the best sellers section of the library and looked at about twenty books. Without exception I found metaphors within the first two pages of each.

You can probably walk over to your bookshelf right now (like I just did), pull out any published novel and find a metaphor on the first or second page. Keep reading and you’ll find more!

Authors who succeed in their craft have usually learned to embrace metaphors as a way to bring the reader visual images in a unique way. I love finding just the right metaphors when I’m writing. Sometimes they just pop into my head. When they do, I’m thankful! But more often than not I have to spend time making metaphors and intentionally inserting them into my manuscripts.

So how do you make a metaphor? When trying to come up with effective metaphors consider...

1. Your Audience

I write middle grade novels. So when making metaphors I select images that will be popular with tweens and teens. For example, when Tabbi, the main character from The Boy Problem, has a very bad day, she describes it like this: It seems like the sky is the world’s largest mood ring and it’s currently displaying my mood to the entire world. Dark gray clouds are traveling across its light gray surface, and not a speck of sun is showing encouraging light. In The Boy Project, Kara uses the following phrase to describe an ah-ha moment: it hit me like a broom handle whacking a piñata.

2. Your Themes

Appropriate metaphors (and similes) can help reinforce the theme of a novel. One of the recurring themes of Exiles, my work in progress, is wind. So when Lily, the main character, becomes very scared I looked to the wind for imagery: Fear whipped around inside her like a tornado. The Boy Problem has a baking theme. So when Tabbi sees her crush in the lunchroom, it’s appropriate for her to make the following observation: His eyes were as brown as the chocolate ganache icing on the cupcake I put next to his lunch box.

3. The Manuscript Itself

Metaphors can be self-referential. J.K. Rowling employs this in her Harry Potter series, drawing comparisons between unlike images in the world she created. I do this when Kara, the main character of The Boy Project, contemplates her social status: I was really in the dark about it. As dark as the closet I went into with Chip Tyler last night after he spun the bottle and it pointed to me.

4. The Most Effective Type of Metaphor

Many types of figurative language fall under the broader umbrella of metaphor. Similes, which are comparisons between two unlike things using like or as and hyperboles, which are exaggerations created by associating unlike things are among them. I used a simile to describe Tabbi’s friend Pri in The Boy Problem when she sees the popular girls stealing their cupcake business: Pri came charging back to our table looking as angry as a miniature bull. A hyperbole worked best to describe a scene where a rival deliberately dropped one of Pri and Tabbi’s cupcakes to the floor (without paying!): It was like she had dropped a bomb and it blew all of the noise out of the cafeteria. And everyone, even me, was completely still. If you aren’t familiar with the types of figurative language at your disposal, check out this site for a list of terms and examples.

I often hear artists use the phrase “really makes it pop” when an element is added to an art piece that suddenly makes the entire work shine. This is what metaphors can do for our prose.

We are writers. We are artists. We use metaphors to make our language pop!

A book with compelling characters and a fantastic plot is as delicious as an ice cream sundae. Effective metaphors are sweet cherries on top. So authors, you know what you need to do.

Be fruitful and metaphor!

About The Boy Problem

Tabitha "Tabbi" Reddy believes in signs. Like fortune cookies. Magic 8-Balls. Shooting stars. And this year, she hopes, looking for the right signs will lead her to the right boy! Inspired by her BFF, Kara (star of THE BOY PROJECT), Tabbi starts her own "project" in the hopes of finding a cute crush. With the help of a math lesson on probability, Tabbi tries to predict who the right boy for her might be! Where is she most likely to meet him? What is he most likely to look like? Full of fun illustrations, hilarious equations, and lessons in cupcake-baking, life, love, and friendship, this book has a 100% probability of awesomeness. A perfect "next step" for fans of DORK DIARIES.

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Book Blurbs:

The Boy Project (Notes and Observations of Kara McAllister)
“This middle-school drama is hip to the moment, with break-up texting, kissing and popularity tug of wars…Kara’s boy-crazy experiment lends refreshing perspective on teen relationships, and the results point to self-enlightenment.”—Kirkus Reviews

The Boy Problem (Notes and Predictions of Tabitha Reddy)
“For any spirited, entrepreneurial teen that’s ever had a crush, this sweet read is sprinkled with lessons on life, love, and business.” – Kirkus Review


  1. Kami-- so fun to find you here on Janice's blog! I totally agree with you about figurative language adding the zest to a story. It's pretty much how I decide if a book is a 4 or 5 star. Has the author used metaphors and similes well? It often moves the book into the "5 star" category. As a fan of "The Boy Project" and "The Boy Problem"-- I know you did it well. After all, writers are artists and words, sentences, and paragraphs are our paint pots, right?

    1. Right! Thanks so much Carol! I appreciate the compliment. Finding the right funny imagery is particularly rewarding. :D

  2. That was terrific. Great references!

  3. I agree, Kami. The use of figurative language in our writing creates great imagery for the reader.

    Recently at a critque session, I was told that I need to cut the words *Two peas in a pod* from my manuscript. I was told the words were cliché. I used the figurative language to describe two sisters that are similar in many ways.

    When is the use of figurative language enhancing one's writing creating an image or considered cliché?

    Thank you.
    ~Suzy Leopold

    1. Hi Suzy! It is a cliche if you are using figurative language that has been used often before. So just replace "two peas in a pod" with two other things that are your own twist on that. Or replace it with a simile like "My sister and I were as alike as red and scarlet, or spearmint and peppermint. I'm sure you can think of something better! It's hard to come up with metaphors on the fly. When you use a metaphor, make sure it is one unique to you, pulled from your very creative mind. Hmmm for you, flower imagery might work! My sister and I were as alike as two daisies in a field. :)

    2. Your thoughts are appreciated, Kami. Well, now that is clear . . . I should consider my own twist, unique to me. You seem to know this Prairie Garden Girl when you suggest that Rosemary and Violet [characters in my pb ms] are alike as two daisies in a field. I picked this sunflower for you, Kami 🌻.