How to write abstractions as metaphorical physicality #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

How to write abstractions with metaphorical physicality

While reading The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, I noticed that the author Joanna Cannon (who like totally tweeted about this post here) is a bit of a genius when it comes to lending physical traits to abstract concepts. To recap, metaphors are comparisons between two things, whether abstract or concrete, that share at least one commonality, whether abstract or concrete. In terms of mechanics (and bear with me through this sentence, because the examples will clarify,) what Cannon does is, in the place of one of the two things being compared, she places an abstraction that is either the actual word for (or is derived from the route word for, or is a synonym for) the commonality. This is a convoluted way of saying…

(This next part is easier to read on screens larger than those of phones.)

EXAMPLE 1: Instead of writing, “Parting is is such a mouthful of overripe strawberries,” in which case the second thing being compared would have been concrete, the actual quote is, “Parting is such sweet sorrow…” ∼ Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

Things #1                                           Thing #2
parting=sorrowful/sad                    sorrow=sorrowful/sad
physicality=abstract concept of sorrow becomes something that can be tasted.

EXAMPLE 2: “They are traveling towards number eleven, their boots heavy on the tarmac, their fists closing around their tempers.” ∼ The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon

Thing #1                                                                                                         Thing #2
fists closing around space=manifestation of angry tempers            tempers=tempers
physicality=abstract concept of a temper occupies less and less physical space in a fist as the fist is closed around the temper.

EXAMPLE 3: “Next to the stove were two easy chairs, one crumpled and sagging, the other smooth and unworn. Over the back of each were crocheted blankets… and I wondered if it had been her patience which had woven together the strands of wool, for a chair she could no longer sit in.” ∼ The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon

Thing #1                                                Thing #2
patience=patience                               hand-crocheting=act that requires patience
physicality=abstract concept of patience is likened to crocheting a blanket by hand

EXAMPLES 4 AND 5: “He can hear her now, kneading stoicism into a thick pastry, and measuring out spoonfuls of endurance for the mixing bowl.” ∼ The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon

Thing #1                                                                                                                         Thing #2
in this context, kneading implies getting on with
daily routine despite problems=stoic                                                             stoicism=stoic
physicality=the abstract concept of stoicism becomes an ingredient being kneaded into the pastry


Thing #1                                                                                                        Thing #2
in this context, measuring out spoonfuls implies
sustaining stamina for daily routine despite
problems=endurance                                                                                 endurance=endurance
physicality=the abstract concept of endurance becomes an ingredient being added to the mixing bowl by the spoonful

EXAMPLE 6: “He has seen her put her bags of shopping down in the middle of the road and look up at the windows of number eleven, and pinch her lips into a thin streak of loathing.” ∼ The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon

Thing #1                                                                                                Thing #2
lips pressed into a thin streak=loathsome expression
indicative of loathing                                                                          loathing=loathing
physicality=abstract concept of loathing personified by lips being in a thin streak/straight line.

EXAMPLE 7: “A handful of civilian volunteers from the morning’s search and rescue efforts poked their curiosity in the door…”∼ The Bias of Rain, Raimey Gallant

Thing #1:                                                                                                 Thing #2
implies that civilian volunteers poked their faces with
curious expressions in the door=curiosity                                      curiosity=curiosity

How to write abstractions with metaphorical physicality

RABBIT HOLE WARNING: If you’re curious as to what types of metaphors the above examples are, there is overlap (or the potential for, given additional examples,) among the following categories, depending on who’s defining them: reificationpersonification, anthromorphismchremamorphism, and zoomorphism.

This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. So many great blogs to keep hopping through. Click here to join the hop and to see what other writing tips you can glean from this month’s edition.

Can you think of any timeworn examples of this literary device? (Hint: He was full of resentment. So happy she could burst. The words were stuck in her throat. A love nest.) Can you come up with any fresh ones? Chat with me in the comments!








51 thoughts on “How to write abstractions as metaphorical physicality #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

  1. Oh, I love when you post about real life work you read, that resonates and makes you think about your writing – it makes ME think about my writing. Your post wherein you mention Gillian Flynn’s way of showing the passage of time did that, and now I’ll think about Joanna Cannon, too. Metaphors, for me, are so tricky. Great examples here. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Now there’s a new way of looking at one’s writing! Thanks for sharing, Unfortunately, I cannot come up with something comparable right now, but I’m still happy about reading this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, but I wonder if the danger of overthinking simile/metaphor doesn’t 1) somehow distance it from its own musicality and 2) make it a crutch. However I would much rather read such abstractions made concrete in metaphor than the standard ruse of going travelogue and overly descriptive of minutiae. Fists clamped around tempers, not to disagree with the temper being minimized, is it not the action of the temper to induce the fist, giving it a physical voice? Just a thought. Great stuff. I love food for thought. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had thought about the connection between a temper and balling one’s fists as well. I think it can go both ways, as in that the act of balling one’s fists can be either the signal of a rising temper or of someone trying to contain one. Interesting!


  4. Always so jealous of people that can have that sort of lyrical writing. I wish I could, but I’m very basic and straightforward. I have to actively think and try to make things work like that. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This made for fascinating reading although I will admit I’m not sure it’s something I could be capable of. But thank you for the great post and the examples.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post! I suspect I won’t remember your terminology, but these are great examples of fresh writing – I especially love #4 and #5 – and it’s a great technique. Anyway, I’ve been told we don’t need to remember the names of rhetorical devices. We just need to remember how to write them 🙂

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  7. I really like examples 4, and 6. They remind me of another figure of speech called zeugma, which Dylan Thomas uses to yoke together an abstraction with a concrete place here: “the ships steaming away into wonder and India, magic and China.” But some of the others feel awkward to me for reasons I can’t quite pin down.

    Metaphor is tricky stuff. “Parting is such a mouthful of overripe strawberries,” for instance, is awful. But not because there’s anything wrong with the [abstract noun – verb – predicate nominative] construction. I love that you’re delving into alternate ways to yoke abstract and concrete concepts–something writers should constantly be playing with. But I’d really love to sit down with you and pick your brain about what that other mystery factor is that can make a metaphor work or not.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Your post is a fine example of strengthening writing skills by feeding the reader little tidbits from the metaphorical bowl of creativity.
    I think this style involves experimenting with words… shifting them around… re-arranging them.
    I love, love, love metaphorical writing and tend to experiment with simile/metaphors in my 5-sentences, prompt-based flash fiction pieces.
    This is flash fiction written in response to a given prompt – in just five sentences.
    It’s my favourite writing exercise and really helps to build lean, tight writing skills

    A quick example if I may:
    The prompt? ORANGE. This is the result:

    The six-month-long search reached its finale.
    Ten candidates strutted their stuff, with styles that ranged from downright ridiculous to over-the-top.
    A little-known, pixie-faced girl, sported a riotous bulk of waist-length wild hair, interlaced with frizzy orange curls, like aloes in desperate need of attention.
    Au naturelle.
    Unknowingly, a trendsetter-in-the-making, blazing a new trail, leading the way on an unknown journey, taking the fledgling company to greater heights.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Prompt writing always gets me out of a writing slump.
        The 5-sentence flash fiction exercises turned me into a flash fiction addict. 😊 You should give it a go.


  9. I find it interesting that I can easily understand metaphors when I read them, but struggle when I attempt to write one for my own…

    After reading this post, however, I realized that I have been using some interesting metaphors all along!

    I tend to write straight-forward, though, but I do try to use alternate imagery in writing to make things more interesting.

    Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Would this be one? “She’s fury and anxiety wrapped in dinged up shin guards.”? I once said of a heartbreak that “this hurts like a Super Bowl.” Oh, there are so many great ways to put together words, aren’t there?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks for the really close lens you’ve put to these metaphors. I hadn’t considered this physical-abstract as a category on its own before, but in a way I think these are figurative language at its best–taking abstract concepts difficult to pin down and linking them to something concrete. There’s a Romantic-era kind of “correspondence” to this, that the vagaries of our minds and emotions are reflected somewhere in physical nature. I guess I’d also say that, in a way, these kinds of metaphors relate to how we as real people learn about the inner worlds of people we meet: thinking of the crocheted blankets example, seeing these blankets and recognizing the patience required to make them is perhaps how we would recognize the personality trait of patience in the person. These metaphors make that jump in the same way a real person might, which perhaps makes them more authentic and natural. I do think, however, that there’s a potential for metaphors like these to be heavy-handed, not allowing the reader the opportunity to make the inferences themself. As with anything, a tool to be used at the right moment. : ) Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

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