Fevers, surfing, and vultures

Metaphor Map #3

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This week, we're looking at metaphors from a playwright, a business writer, and an editor.

1. Life is like a fever

After life's fitful fever he sleeps well.

- William Shakespeare, Macbeth

This morbid metaphor comes from one of Shakespeare’s classics: MacBeth. It’s okay if you don’t remember it from high school; we’re here to focus on this one sentence. 

Here, Shakespeare compares life to fever and death to sleep. Death as sleep is a common metaphor but Shakespeare enlivens it by evoking the image of a restless, exhausting sleep. 

What I want you to focus on here is the economy of language: 7 words. In 7 words, he evokes death as release, life as pain, and living as sickness. Morbid, yes, but powerful. And all in one sentence.

Outside of works of literature, we don’t have many opportunities to opine about death. But this image of sleep made fitful by fever is one so universally understood that writers should think about how they can use it. 

Many problems can grow large enough and painful enough to cause a fitful sleep. If you’re writing directly about someone’s problems, ideally something that conceivably keeps them up at night, comparing it to a fever can demonstrate your understanding. 

And you don’t have to go as dark as Shakespeare, here: Fevers pass. If you want, you can focus as much on the kind of absurd delirium a fever puts you in. We’ve all known someone who wishes for death just after getting the sniffles (with apologies to my partner, who has to deal with this behavior on the regular). 

2. Business is like surfing

Business is like surfing ... Entrepreneurship, and surfing, are both inherently difficult: not everyone who hops on a surfboard becomes a good surfer! And it will be exceptionally harder if you try to jump ahead, without first developing your fundamentals. ... If business was surfing, the market would be the wave. Ultimately, your product's potential is determined by the size, momentum, and characteristics of your market.

- Justin Jackson, Business is like Surfing

Justin Jackson, co-founder of Transistor.fm, builds an entire piece here around the titular metaphor: business is like surfing. 

This way of using metaphors is easy to mess up. Extending a metaphor across a piece can easily make for a lanky, clumsy analogy. The key to success here is twofold: picking a comparison that involves numerous actions or stages and choosing the right actions or stages to focus on. 

You can imagine a version of Jackson’s piece that stinks: Business is like surfing because sometimes it’s fast, sometimes it’s slow, and sometimes you fall off.

Not good. You’ve read analogies like this. 

A good metaphor needs to be specific. You picked a specific image to compare your idea to and you need to prove you made the right decision. Business obviously isn’t surfing, so you have to beat the skepticism such a comparison elicits. 

Jackson does this by stacking reasons why business and surfing are similar. The differences are mundane and obvious so he focuses on the similarities: the difficulty, the learning curve, the practice, etc. But even if the reader buys it, they’re still going to end up asking, “So what?” 

Jackson makes the whole piece work by adding another metaphor: markets are like waves. It’s the triangulation between these two comparisons and the reader that makes his argument so compelling and his ideas so useful. 

If you’re going to use a metaphor like this, learn from this piece. The point can’t be that you successfully made a comparison. You have to go beyond that. The best way is to demonstrate that your metaphor explains multiple aspects of your idea. 

When a metaphor can explain multiple things like this, it’s more powerful than the sum of its parts. 

3. Ads are like vultures

On the right side of the screen, taking up approximately a third of the available space, a gaggle of enthusiastic ads continues to shadow your progress like vultures circling a wounded animal.

- David Roth, The Infinite Scroll

David Roth, once an editor at Deadspin, writes here about the reading experience online. 

Again, if we break this metaphor down into a simile, it’s not all that impressive: Ads are like vultures. But Roth doesn’t do that. Instead he starts with a physical, factual description of ad space. 

As reader, we’re familiar with this design. We’re on the same page (so to speak). 

Then he personifies the ads, giving them enthusiasm; then he smushes them together, making them a gaggle; then he gives them a purpose, enabling them to follow you as close as shadows. 

This build up from a physical description to a literally dark image itself gives you the feeling of a desert sun, darkening as vultures creep over the horizon. And there you are, the reader of this piece and the Reader he’s describing, feeling defenseless to these predatory ads.

A good metaphor doesn’t just support your writing; your writing supports your metaphor. As memorable as the vulture imagery is, it wouldn’t be as effective without the shadows, the enthusiasm, and the bare fact description of where these ads are on the screen. 

Using metaphors effectively means resisting the temptation to have them lead your words around. They only work in their proper place and in Roth’s case, that came after a straight ahead phrase and a rapid build up.

Expert writers throughout history and genre use metaphors to explain their ideas. Metaphor Map gathers the best of them and explains how you can adapt them to your own writing. 

There’s a hidden universe of metaphor that connects all the different worlds of writing. Hit the subscribe button and join me. Let’s map this territory.