What Is a Metaphor? Definition and Examples of Metaphor in Literature

Written by MasterClass

Aug 19, 2019 • 6 min read

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The English language is full of literary devices that can be used to add depth to your writing. One of the most common—and useful—of these is a metaphor.



What Is a Metaphor?

A metaphor (from the Greek “metaphorá”) is a figure of speech that directly compares one thing to another for rhetorical effect.

While the most common metaphors use the structure “X is Y,” the term “metaphor” itself is broad and can sometimes be used to include other literary terms, like similes.

One of the most famous examples of metaphor in the English language comes from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. In it, the playwright writes:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.

Shakespeare is comparing the world to a stage by saying one is the other. However, he doesn’t believe the world is a literal stage; the comparison is rhetorical. By comparing the world to a stage, and the people in the world as players on it, he is inviting us to think about the similarities between the two, and by extension, the meaning of human nature and our place in the world.

2 Purposes of Metaphor in Writing

At their most basic, metaphors are used to make a direct comparison between two different things, in order to ascribe a particular quality to the first. But beyond simple comparison, metaphors have two clear purposes that will strengthen your writing:

  1. To paint a picture—fast. Sometimes, what you need the reader to understand can’t be described in a few sentences—you just need to show them what you mean. In such instances, a metaphor works best. For example, you might want to show why your main character is frustrated with his wife. Instead of spending time describing her tedious behavior, you can have your character compare her to the lights in their apartment—easily switched on and off.
  2. To infuse some uncertainty into a situation. As much as a metaphor can help illuminate a thought or scene, it can also help to give it a touch of mystery. For example, if you’d like to hint to the reader that there’s something ominous about a location, you could use a metaphor: “The forest at night was beautiful. The trees were black knife-slices, the moon a bone rising in the sky.”

4 Different Types of Metaphor

There are a few different types of metaphor, each serving a different purpose.

  1. Standard. A standard metaphor is one that compares two unlike things using the basic construction X is Y. Shakespeare’s line “All the world’s a stage” is a standard metaphor.
  2. Implied. An implied metaphor is a type of metaphor that compares two things that are not alike without actually mentioning one of those things. For example, “A woman barked a warning at her child.” Here, the implied metaphor compares a woman to a dog, without actually mentioning the dog.
  3. Visual. A visual metaphor compares one thing to a visual image that suggests an association. Visual metaphors are commonly used in advertising—for example, a car manufacturer picturing their latest sports car alongside an image of a panther. The metaphor is used to suggest the car is as slick, fast, and cool as the wild animal.
  4. Extended. An extended metaphor is a version of a metaphor that extends over the course of multiple lines, paragraphs, or stanzas of prose or poetry. Extended metaphors build upon simple metaphors with figurative language and more varied, descriptive comparisons. Learn more about extended metaphors in our guide here.

What Is a Dead Metaphor?

A dead metaphor is a type of metaphor that has shifted meaning over time due to overuse. Dead metaphors don’t convey an image in the mind the same way that standard, implied, or visual metaphors do, because their original interpretation has long been lost (and for this reason, some argue that dead metaphors are no longer metaphors at all).

However, we still instantly recognize their meaning. Examples of dead metaphors include “kicking the bucket”; “melting pot”; and “body of work.”

What Is a Mixed Metaphor?

A mixed metaphor is a combination of two or more metaphors that are incompatible. The effect is often humorous. Whether it is intentional or unintentional depends on one’s grasp of how metaphors work. Some examples of mixed metaphors include “Not the sharpest cookie in the cookie jar”; “A watched clock never boils”; and “A rolling stone is worth two in the bush.”

How Do You Write a Good Metaphor?

Good metaphors are a little harder to write than other types of comparisons because they take a risk by saying something is something else, rather than using the simile hedge words like or as.

However, metaphors are a great way to liven up bland prose. Good metaphors are:

  • Image-driven. Metaphors are intended to paint a picture in the reader’s mind about a particular character or situation. When using a metaphor to describe something, make sure that the image is as vivid as possible.
  • Not overly complex. Metaphors don’t need to be written in the heightened language or ideas of Shakespeare; many good metaphors use everyday language and images that readers can immediately understand and relate to.
  • Original. This can be tough, but try and avoid clichés or metaphors that have been used in the past. Think about the imagery you’re trying to evoke for the reader, and don’t pick the first comparison that comes to your mind—this is usually the easy choice, and it won’t be as powerful as your second or third idea. Compare the effect of these two metaphors, the first the easier choice and the second pushed a little further: “The snow is a white blanket” or “The snow is a scattering of unopened love letters.”

How Often Should You Use Metaphor in Writing?

You should use metaphors sparingly. The excessive use of metaphor can run the risk of confusing or distracting readers. The point of your story is not to impress your reader with clever phrases and metaphors; it is to hold their attention and tell a great story. If a metaphor can serve that greater goal, then use it. If it doesn’t, avoid it.

3 Examples of Metaphor in Literature

Literature is full of creative metaphors, the best of which demonstrate the power of this literary device when wielded with skill. Here are a few metaphor examples:

  1. William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954). “The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid near and nearer the sill of the world.”
  2. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597). “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!”
  3. Emily Dickinson, “Hope” (1886). “Hope is the thing with feathers—that perches in the soul.”

What Is the Difference Between Metaphor and Simile?

Metaphors and similes are two closely related literary terms. They are often confused for one another because they are both types of comparison and forms of figurative language (or non-literal language).

In fact, similes are a type of metaphor, because metaphor is a general term to describe a comparison that is often poetic. Similes have two more specific attributes that make them a subset of metaphor:

  • A simile uses like or as. This is the most basic requirement of a simile, and it’s an easy one to notice—all similes use either like or as to make their comparison.
  • A simile is often more obvious than a metaphor. Similes are relatively more obvious compared to metaphors because of their use of like or as—those two words act as flags to indicate to readers that the comparison is a simile. By using like or as, readers can recognize that they should suspend their disbelief for the comparison because the writer isn’t attempting to convince readers that X is Y (as a metaphor would), but merely invite them to notice that X is like Y. Learn more about similes here.

Learn more about the differences and similarities between metaphor and simile in our complete guide here.

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to correctly use literary devices like metaphor is essential to good writing. Award-winning author Judy Blume has spent decades honing her craft. In her writing MasterClass, Judy provides insight into how to invent vivid characters, write realistic dialogue, and turn your experiences into stories people will treasure.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.