Metaphors are powerful figures of speech. For example, take Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Of the last two identical lines, the first is literal but the second is metaphorical. The first “And miles to go before I sleep” means just that, a long way to travel before the horse and buggy driver can drop into bed. But the second “And miles to go before I sleep” means–perhaps–not a literal sleep but the “sleep” of death. Frost could have ended his poem with, “And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I die,” but how much more eloquent is his repetition of the word “sleep,” a metaphor for death.
Reading metaphors requires more of readers than does reading literal words or even similes. Readers must make a connection which is inferred but not stated directly. Yet for their work, readers are rewarded, gaining satisfaction from discovering the meaning of the metaphor.
Metaphors are rarely written by adults and especially not by children. They need to be taught, and need to be practiced.
Where to begin? Here are three ways.
- Suppose a child is writing a story with two or three characters. The child could use ordinary names for his characters, or he could use names as metaphors, the way J. K. Rowling does in her Harry Potter books. (Malfoy means bad faith; Snape sounds like snake; the “mort” of Voldemort means death.) A child could create a metaphorical name to reveal something about a character’s nature. You and the student could brainstorm about a name which indicates bossiness, for example. It could be a word which means boss (Lord, Lady, King, Rex, Regis, Mayor, Bishop, Majors) or a word which sounds like a word which means boss, even if it is made up (Empor, Captin, Sarge, Leder).
- Suppose a character is doing something, such as running fast, and the child writes a simile, such as “runs like a cheetah.” Show the child that he could also write that the character “runs on cheetah legs.” Many similes are easily turned into metaphors. “as fast as lightning” could be “lightning fast” or “races with lightning steps.” “Runs as fast as a rocket” could be “blasts on rocket feet.”
- Ask the child to picture someone’s hands not as hands, but as something else: scissors, pencils, chopsticks, or hooks. Now turn that image into a metaphor. He ate with chopstick fingers. She arranged her hair with finger combs. Mom smoothed her dress with finger irons.