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What makes an individual metaphor a good illustration of a complex idea as opposed to a "bad" metaphor that doesn't do the job of painting a picture with alternate words?

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3 Answers

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Well, first off, it should be a metaphor, not a simile. :) Ahem...

A great metaphor recasts the familiar or mundane as something strikingly different yet truly parallel. It gives a startlingly vivid picture or brings a surprising insight. A bad metaphor fails to achieve the parallel, or the fresh insight, or both. The element of surprise is an important part of a great metaphor. If we saw it coming from a paragraph away, it is far less effective; a metaphor can be bad merely because it is a cliche.

Some personal favorites:

"The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees/The moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy seas" (Noyes)

"The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes" (T.S. Eliot)

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage" (Shakespeare)

"Out of the mocking bird's throat, the musical shuttle/Out of the Ninth-month midnight" (Whitman)

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The fog crept in on little cat feet. (Sandburg) –  Lauren Ipsum May 4 '12 at 9:58
    
+1 for the...ahem...simile comment, for the reminder to beware of cliched metaphors, and for your list of fine examples. –  JLG May 4 '12 at 13:17
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Hey, I never said I was demonstrating metaphors. I was just answering the question. –  Aerovistae May 7 '12 at 5:02
    
I was taught in school that a simile was a type of metaphor. Hadn't thought of it again much until now. If you extract the meaning from the grammar, then there's a lot of cross-over. –  naught101 Aug 22 '12 at 4:24
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A good metaphor will parallel or easily invoke the idea you're trying to convey, without extraneous or irrelevant details. It resonates with the audience and may add to the core idea.

A poor metaphor has baggage of its own, doesn't track with the original concept, is too clunky, too esoteric, needs too much explanation, or becomes absurd.

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Can you think of any examples offhand? –  Neil Fein May 3 '12 at 17:53
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"The ships hung in the sky exactly the way that bricks didn't." Whether that is a good metaphor or a bad one is an exercise left to the student. –  Lauren Ipsum May 3 '12 at 19:09
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In that case, the metaphor includes a description of the ships and fits well with the surrounding text. And the original appearance of the line (in a radio drama) was spoken by someone who could pull it off. Imagine, say, Jim Carrey or Candice Bergen saying that; it wouldn't have worked at all. –  Neil Fein May 3 '12 at 19:15
    
I'm sorry @NeilFein, I thought that was from Hitchhiker's Guide...? Not a radio drama? –  Aerovistae May 3 '12 at 19:41
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HHG started life as a BBC radio drama, and only became a book series and then movie afterwards. –  Lauren Ipsum May 3 '12 at 20:30
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A bad metaphor is like your 81-year-old Portuguese grandfather. Really, only close family members and people from that region can even understand him at all, and even then he's talking nonsense half the time, and he talks for far too long about things most people are unfamiliar with.

A good metaphor is a lot like a mime - it neatly conveys the essence of the idea in mind and requires no additional explanation.

A really good metaphor is much like Marcel Marceau - original, memorable, and even alliterative.

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As an example of that last one, I'm reading Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle at the moment. Here's an excerpt: "The stones in the garden looked whiter and smoother than they ordinarily did, staring up at the sky like the faces of dead people." See how that not only perfectly captured the essence of "smooth and white" but also added to the scene a certain sense of morbidity and eeriness? That is the tint to which I refer. Metaphors are a powerful method by which to lead your readers' thoughts in a desired direction. –  Aerovistae May 3 '12 at 18:19
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Your first paragraph may be the best thing I've ever read on this site. –  Neil Fein May 3 '12 at 19:16
    
The above "example" is no longer applicable to my edited answer, but I'm leaving it up since it's a pretty cool simile anyway. –  Aerovistae Dec 27 '12 at 1:11
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