Metaphors are not toys.
If you don't know how to handle them they can hurt you - or worse: they can make you look silly. Here's proof, from a unwitting author who shall remain nameless (because I don't know her name):
"As far as my writing career goes, this project could be the gravy on the cake."*
Oh, I hope it isn't; I do. But if she writes like that, she could find herself sitting on the bench.
Right next to Barack Obama, who said in 2008:
"Now, Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears."
Maybe somebody should look.
Next to him will sit - however unwillingly - Sean Hannity ("That may sound great on paper") and Rush Limbaugh ("...who were going to fight you hook, line and sinker.")
Sometimes the gaffs are so glaring, you wonder - hope - they are intentional. Perhaps, you think, the speaker is making a joke:
It's as American as killing two birds with one apple pie. Gary Swing, Colorado candidate for House of Representatives
So silly, you think. You don't have to be an expert to spot a mess like that.
But be careful! Botched metaphors aren't always obvious. Because so much of our language is figurative, we forget that certain words paint pictures. Which means we'd best pay attention to what they are painting, or we could end up with something truly bizarre:
Over all, many experts conclude, advanced climate research in the United States is fragmented among an alphabet soup of agencies, strained by inadequate computing power and starved for the basic measurements of real-world conditions that are needed to improve simulations. The New York Times, 11 June 2001**
At first I thought of crackers, fragmented in the alphabet soup, and it almost worked. But then he strained the soup - so there went my crackers - and said we - or someone - was starved. Which was no surprise if he is going to go around straining the crackers out of the soup.
We must be so careful.
In the hands of an amateur, a metaphor can make a reader laugh at inappropriate times:
"It's like ice cold electricity passing through your body." another unnamed novelist
Readers who find themselves laughing at inappropriate times also find themselves distracted from the story the author is trying to tell:
"We traveled through remote Chinese villages where the hand of Westerners has never set foot."*
But the art of writing is full of subtlety. Even a bad metaphor has its uses. In the right hands, it can make the author look clever, even if he or she is not:
Take for instance the writer who wrote:
"We are in a butt-ugly recession right now, but we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel."*
I have no way of knowing if this writer meant to make me laugh at the clever irony of his statement, but even if he didn't, with a little practice - an upturned eyebrow, a tiny smirk - he can make it seem that he did.
I've learned this. Don't ask how.
Furthermore, we novelists have one more sensible use for botched metaphors: characterization!
We love characters who say silly things. Remember Frank Burns, from M*A*S*H, who asked "Can't you read the handwriting in the wind?"
How could you not love a character who told another to "fish or get off the pot?"
I have a niece who once told me that when a house-guest irritated her by sleeping on the couch in the middle of the day, she "turned the dishwasher on full blast" to wake him up. I didn't think she was silly. I thought she was funny, and clever. I wondered how she might fit in a novel...
So sometimes bad writing can be good, but you must use it with utmost skill. You can mangle a metaphor on purpose: to be ironic, or to build interesting characters.
You just can't mangle a metaphor by accident.
That dog won't fly.
Now, your turn: you came up with such great metaphors in the comments on Wednesday's post. Today I want you to tell me your best bad metaphors. It's Friday. Let's have some fun.
*Richard Lederer, The Revenge of Anguished English: More Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language
**Jack Lynch, Guide to Grammar and Style