Why are bad metaphors bad?

Photo: Wikipedia

“She had him like a toenail stuck in a shag carpet.” Is this a bad metaphor? what makes a metaphor work — or not work?

This question occurred to me as I perused a set of “bad analogies” that were purportedly from high school students — but most of which were actually the results of a bad metaphor contest.

I asked the question “What makes these metaphors bad?” Here’s my analysis, which is as sharp as the Burj Khalifa.

The wrong image

It’s fine to startle people with a metaphor — but you don’t want that reaction to verge over into disgust. If it does, the image will overwhelm whatever you’re trying to say. For example:

The grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli and he was room temperature Canadian beef.

Her eyes twinkled, like the mustache of a man with a cold.

Joy filled her heart like a silent but deadly fart fills a room with no windows.

The sun was below the watery horizon, like a diabetic grandma easing into a warm salt bath.

Their love burned with the fiery intensity of a urinary tract infection.

She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes before it throw up.

Oooo, he smells bad, she thought, as bad as Calvin Klein’s Obsession would smell if it were called Enema and was made from spoiled Spamburgers instead of natural floral fragrances. 

The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.

Upon completing kindergarten, Lance felt the same sense of accomplishment the Unabomber feels every time he successfully blows up another college professor. 

The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant. 

He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up. 

Her eyes were shining like two marbles that someone dropped in mucus and then held up to catch the light.

“Oh, Jason, take me!” she panted, her breasts heaving like a college freshman on $1-a-beer night. 

Her lips were red and full, like tubes of blood drawn by an inattentive phlebotomist.

Then there are the ones that make you go “huh” — because they refer to something unfamiliar — and thereby break the mood.

She caught your eye like one of those pointy hook latches that used to dangle from screen doors and would fly up whenever you banged the door open.

From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and “Jeopardy!” comes on at 7 p.m. instead of 7:30. 

Bob was as perplexed as a hacker who means to access T:flw.quid 55328.comaaakk/ch@ung but gets T:flw.quid aaakk/ch@ung by mistake.

They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan’s teeth. 

Her artistic sense was exquisitely refined, like someone who can tell butter from I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.

The sunset displayed rich, spectacular hues like a .jpeg file at 10 percent cyan, 10 percent magenta, 60 percent yellow and 10 percent black.

And similarly bad: metaphors that draw so much attention to themselves that they distract from the text.

The baseball player stepped out of the box and spit like a fountain statue of a Greek god that scratches itself a lot and spits brown, rusty tobacco water and refuses to sign autographs for all the little Greek kids unless they pay him lots of drachmas.

He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it. 

Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

He regarded death with hesitant dread, as if he were a commedia dell’arte troupe and death was an audience of pipe-fitters.

He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something. 

The knife was as sharp as the tone used by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) in her first several points of parliamentary procedure made to Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) in the House Judiciary Committee hearings on the impeachment of President William Jefferson Clinton.

Her voice had that tense, grating quality, like a first-generation thermal paper fax machine that needed a band tightened.

She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.

Outside the little snow-covered cabin, a large pile of firewood was stacked like Pamela Anderson.

Finally, there are the metaphors that don’t actually generate any insight — because they’re vacuous.

I felt a nameless dread. Well, there probably is a long German name for it, like Geschpooklichkeit or something, but I don’t speak German. Anyway, it’s a dread that nobody knows the name for, like those little square plastic gizmos that close your bread bags. I don’t know the name for those either.

He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t. 

Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the center.

Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever. 

Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met. 

The thunder was ominous-sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during the storm scene in a play.

The red brick wall was the color of a brick-red Crayola crayon.

Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

Fishing is like waiting for something that does not happen very often. 

The lamp just sat there, like an inanimate object.

Also in these contests, though, are metaphors that are almost good. They make you think, but not too much. These might work in the right context — especially if you’re trying to generate a smile. If I were editing, I might just leave these in.

His fountain pen was so expensive it looked as if someone had grabbed the pope, turned him upside down and started writing with the tip of his big pointy hat.

After 15 years of marriage, sex had become an experience devoid of genuine excitement and emotion, like when you’re stuck in traffic trying to get downtown on the Fourth of July and have to listen to the announcer describe the fireworks on the radio. 

The politician was gone but unnoticed, like the period after the Dr. on a Dr Pepper can.

She was sending me more mixed signals than a dyslexic third-base coach. 

McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

Her date was pleasant enough, but she knew that if her life was a movie this guy would be buried in the credits as something like “Second Tall Man.”

His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River. 

The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM.

The dandelion swayed in the gentle breeze like an oscillating electric fan set on medium.

It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

She was as easy as the TV Guide crossword.

The painting was very Escher-like, as if Escher had painted an exact copy of an Escher painting. 

The sardines were packed as tight as the coach section of a 747.

Write metaphors that work

A few quick tips:

  • If what you’re describing is easily understood, don’t use a metaphor.
  • If your metaphor is familiar from repetition elsewhere (“slow as a snail”), don’t use it.
  • If you have to explain the metaphor, delete it.
  • If the metaphor calls up an image that’s vastly different in mood from what you’re describing, avoid it.
  • If it’s about something that won’t be familiar to most of the audience, take a pass.
  • Don’t pile metaphors on top of one another; mixed metaphors are distracting.

Instead, go for fresh metaphors that enlighten rather than distract. They’ll make the reader go “ahh” rather than “hmm” — and make her feel smarter as well.

Metaphors like that are as welcome — and as rare — as respect and civility in a presidential debate.

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  1. Some of these are just icky and that’s why they don’t work. Others remind me of entrants in the famous Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose opening sentences to the worst of all possible novels” — so bad they are funny. bulwer-lytton.com

  2. (hates to be a grammar fascist but most of your examples are similes, not metaphors.)
    (sneaks out of room with tail between her legs, whispering “sorry to be a b*tch”…)
    Sz xx