What Is Extended Metaphor? Definition, Examples, and Structure of Extended Metaphor

Written by MasterClass

Jun 14, 2019 • 4 min read

Extended metaphors are a great way to build evocative images into a piece of writing and make prose more emotionally resonant. Examples of extended metaphor can be found across all forms of poetry and prose. Learning to use extended metaphors in your own work will help you engage your readers and improve your writing.


What Is an Extended Metaphor?

A metaphor is a literary device that figuratively compares and equates two things that are not alike. An extended metaphor is a version of 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.

What Is the Structure of a Metaphor?

The core structure of every metaphor consists of two parts called the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the root idea that the metaphor starts with and the vehicle is the second concept that the metaphor figuratively compares the first to. If we take William Shakespeare’s famous “All the World’s a Stage” metaphor from As You Like it, the world would be the tenor and the stage is the vehicle. Through extended metaphor, Shakespeare builds an evocative comparison of human life and existence to the drama his audience sees before them.

How to Use Extended Metaphor

There are different ways of approaching and using extended metaphors in your writing. Some metaphors occur naturally as you develop your piece and can easily be integrated into your work. If you’re looking for a process to generate extended metaphors, consider the following:

  • Think about the central themes you’re exploring. Most extended metaphors highlight central symbols or themes. Regardless of whether you are writing a poem, novel, play, or essay, think about the major themes of your work and which you think would be best served through extended metaphor.
  • Brainstorm compelling images. Once you’ve settled on the starting tenor for your metaphor, free associate some compelling images and comparisons that the tenor evokes for you. Spend some time compiling a list of the possible vehicles that you’ve generated.
  • Find a clear comparison. Choose a metaphorical comparison that is both evocative and clear. It shouldn’t be a leap for your reader to follow the logic of your metaphor. A good metaphor draws a natural comparison but isn’t overly obvious or literal.
  • Overwrite. After you’ve settled on the tenor and vehicle of your metaphor, start to extend it over several lines or paragraphs. Allow yourself to overwrite, exploring the various ways you can illustrate the comparison and reveal different facets of your metaphor.
  • Edit. Once you feel like you’ve generated enough material, edit down your extended metaphor to its most evocative and effective parts. Even though extended metaphors are longer than simple metaphors, you still want to have concise and pithy prose. Choose the sections that are most necessary to your piece and edit out the rest.

3 Examples of Extended Metaphor

Extended metaphor examples can be found throughout literature and poetry. Some famous examples include:

  1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet: Upon seeing Juliet for the first time, Romeo delivers a monologue that features an extended metaphor comparing Juliet to the sun. “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” Once Shakespeare establishes the terms of his initial metaphor (“Juliet is the sun”) he elaborates on the qualities of the sun and extends its function “arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon”. The extended metaphor serves to highlight Romeo’s intense passion and immediate love upon seeing Juliet.
  2. Emily Dickinson, ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers: Dickinson uses extended metaphor to great effect in her poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—”. She compares the feeling of hope to a little bird. Dickinson emphasizes the resiliency and strength that hope can provide by illustrating the many places the ‘bird’ can be found: “I’ve heard it in the chillest land - / And on the strangest Sea”. The entire poem functions as an extended metaphor comparing hope to a bird capable of weathering any storm.
  3. Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken: In perhaps his most famous poem, Robert Frost extends the metaphor of a road twisting its way through a yellow wood being to a long life full of ups and downs. The central image is of a fork in the road which Frost equates to a pivotal life decision. The poem is one of the most popular in contemporary culture and is an iconic and accessible example of extended metaphor at play.

Using extended metaphor in your writing may seem difficult at first. The more you look for extended metaphors in books or poems your reading and challenge yourself to employ them in your own work, the easier they will start to come.

Become a better writer with the MasterClass All-Access Pass. Gain access to exclusive video lessons taught by literary masters, including Neil Gaiman, Billy Collins, Margaret Atwood, and more.