Metaphors make comparisons between two or more things with colorful illustrations. So, instead of saying, “A fire broke out,” you might say, “The flames of the fire shot up faster than a trio of lightning bolts.”
In one short line, you can tell a graphic story, free of bland prose. Extended metaphors take on a whole new level of charm. These are metaphors that are mentioned once in a body of text and then referenced again and again later on.
For example, if the line about the flames and lightning bolts was introduced at the start of a paragraph, it can be referred to again later in the paragraph, or anywhere in the text. Perhaps the writer will say something like, “Not even the lightning bolts could catch her as she raced down the highway.”
Let’s discuss how to use this literary device and then enjoy a few extended metaphor examples. Together, we’ll explore new ways to prolong the life of your colorful words.
In our sample above, we considered an extended metaphor that’s mentioned at the start of one paragraph and mentioned again later in that paragraph, or later in the text, perhaps several chapters later. That’s one way of working with your poetic paintbrush. But, extended metaphors can also unfold through a series of lines in the same paragraph.
If you want to intensify the scene with a fire breaking out, you might say:
The flames of the fire shot up faster than a trio of lightning bolts. The thunderous roar of the ceiling’s collapse was loud enough to wake the dead. In a moment’s time, I learned Clare knew how to drive, and I mean really drive. The flames nipped at our rear bumper but not even those lightning bolts could catch us now.
Without question, extended metaphors are more complex than regular metaphors. They’re not only lengthier, they also contain multiple layers. There will be a primary metaphor (e.g., the flames and the lightning bolts) and secondary layers of metaphors (e.g., the thunderous roar of the ceiling’s collapse).
In a moment, we’re going to enjoy one of Emily Dickinson’s poems where she extends the metaphor throughout the entirety of her work. When developing your own extended metaphors, you’ll know which style is right for you. Perhaps you’ll let a sentiment linger in the readers’ minds and then harken back to it later on in the text. Or, perhaps you’ll want to lay it all out in one fell swoop.
We couldn’t discuss metaphors without enjoying a few samples from poetry and literature. Poetry is, essentially, painting with words. Writers are able to conjure beautiful images in the readers’ eyes and a good, strong extended metaphor is a surefire way to paint with eloquence.
If ever you feel downtrodden, pull out this poem. In "Hope is the Thing with Feathers," Emily Dickinson takes the concept of hope and compares it to a bird that perches on the soul and never stops singing. But, she doesn’t stop there. She goes on to say the song is the sweetest you’ve ever heard and it’s enough to warm the chilliest land. Indeed, she’s extended this concept of hope in the most colorful and uplifting manner.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune - without words,
And never stops at all,
And the sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Robert Frost certainly pulled out his paintbrush to write “The Road Not Taken.” We envision things like yellow woods and plush undergrowth. Although we have this lovely mental image of a man walking through a deep forest, it’s actually a metaphor for life. Frost is remarking on his choice to not “go along with the crowd” but, instead, choose his own path in life. In the end, it gave him the remarkable life he led.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The narrator of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nick Carraway, had a lot to lament about by the end of his adventure with Gatsby. But, in this particular instance, Carraway is drawing comparisons between the plight of the poor and a valley of dark, dusty ashes. Nearly every line in this passage is part of an extended metaphor.
The ashes (the poor) are so many, they grow into ridges. A line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, letting out a ghastly creak. And, occasionally, passengers riding on a train pass by and stare at this sorry affair. F. Scott Fitzgerald is remarking on the affluent’s inability to understand the plight of the poor, because they’re so far removed.
This is a valley of ashes - a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. … The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and, when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour.
Here, you can see Dean Koontz introduce the idea of a three (hundred) ring circus in his novel Seize the Night. He must’ve been nearing the end of an escapade, as he was alluding to ring 299/300. Then, Koontz extends this colorful metaphor nicely, mentioning his departure from the circus tent to buy popcorn and soda - popular circus treats.
Bobby Holloway says my imagination is a three-hundred-ring circus. Currently, I was in ring two hundred and ninety-nine, with elephants dancing and clowns cart wheeling and tigers leaping through rings of fire. The time had come to step back, leave the main tent, go buy some popcorn and a Coke, bliss out, cool down.
Perhaps the most notable part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech is his repetition of the line, “I have a dream…” But, he was also clever enough to include an extended metaphor into his words. He begins with the metaphor about cashing a check. Then, he advances onto the forefathers’ signage of a promissory note. Next, he takes a strong stand against the nation’s failure to honor its promissory note. And, finally, King closes out with some words about the bankruptcy of justice and insufficient funds. It’s no wonder Martin Luther King continues to be regarded as a master orator.
In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Comedians are masters of rhetorical devices. They use metaphors, similes, puns, and more with rare talent. One of the most popular comedians of all time, Will Ferrell, was asked to deliver the commencement address to the Harvard University graduates of 2003. In it, we see an extended metaphor, illustrating his lack of college education, but his abundance of life knowledge, much of which seems to come from a plethora of street brawls. Of course, comedians remind us metaphors aren’t meant to be taken literally.
I graduated from the University of Life. All right? I received a degree from the School of Hard Knocks. And our colors were black and blue, baby. I had office hours with the Dean of Bloody Noses. All right? I borrowed my class notes from Professor Knuckle Sandwich and his Teaching Assistant, Ms. Fat Lip Thon Nyun. That’s the kind of school I went to for real, okay?
In "Firework" by Katy Perry, the metaphor is pretty clear. She believes all of us have a spark inside that, when lit, can put on a show like the Fourth of July. That spark is our ability to rebound from life’s challenges. Even when we feel like we’ve got nothing left to give, there’s still that underlying spark that can turn the whole thing around and light up the world like the Fourth of July.
Do you know that there’s still a chance for you?
‘Cause there’s a spark in you
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
'Cause baby, you're a firework
C'mon, show 'em what you're worth
Make 'em go "Aah, aah, aah"
As you shoot across the sky
Baby, you're a firework
C'mon, let your colors burst
Make 'em go, "Aah, aah, aah"
You're gonna leave them all in awe, awe, awe
Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Eminem is a master lyricist. Indeed, he’s a modern-day hip-hop, rap, and R&B poet. In the lines below from “25 to Life,” he’s lamenting what appears to be a woman’s jealousy in spite of the fact that he gives her all his time. In truth, this entire rap is an extended metaphor for hip-hop. Eminem feels he gives his all to his craft and, even still, it’s not enough.
I feel like when I bend over backwards for you all you do is laugh
Cause that ain't good enough you expect me to fold myself in half
Til I snap
Don't think I'm loyal
All I do is rap
I can not moonlight on the side
I have no life outside of that
Don't I give you enough of my time
You don't think so do you
Jealous when I spend time with the girls
Why I'm married to you still man I don't know
But tonight I'm serving you with papers
I'm divorcing you
As you write, see if any portions lend themselves to an extended metaphor. You might consider unfolding one in an entire paragraph. Or, you might like one so much, you’ll return to it later in the text.
Either way, they’ll keep your readers captivated with a colorful scene or two. At this point, we’ve discussed poetry and literature quite a bit. For a little more inspiration, enjoy these examples of short stories too.