Sometimes, a simple metaphor just won’t cut it. And when that happens, you can use an extended metaphor to build out your imagery further and really drive home the point you’re trying to make.

Extended metaphors are a common linguistic device used in both prose and poetry. Chances are, you’ve come across them plenty of times. You may have even used them in your writing. But how exactly does this literary tool work? Here’s what to know, including some famous examples of extended metaphors and a few tips on how to use the device most effectively. 

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A Simple Extended Metaphor Definition

An extended metaphor is just like a standard metaphor in that it draws a direct comparison between two things. However, instead of stopping at just one sentence, an extended metaphor continues to expand on the idea across multiple sentences or paragraphs, or even as the basis for an entire literary work.

You’ll find lots of examples of extended metaphors in poetry, but the device is also popular in novels, short stories, song lyrics, speeches, and movies. Often, in addition to expanding on the metaphorical comparison, an extended metaphor will also work in other types of figurative language. The result is a more comprehensive analogy that’s impossible to miss on the page.

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Extended Metaphor Examples

Looking at examples is a great way to get a feel for how extended metaphors function. It can also provide you with some inspiration for working extended metaphors into your own writing. Check out these famous extended metaphor examples, and try to pinpoint the exact moment when the comparison shifts from being a basic metaphor to a more thorough one.  

Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken” 

Robert Frost’s most famous poem is an excellent example of an extended metaphor at work. Consider the very first stanza: “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,” which speaks not to a physical divergence but to the indecision caused by having multiple choices. This extended metaphor is carried through to the very end of the poem, when Frost writes, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.”

Frank O’Hara, “To the Harbormaster” 

Another instance of extended metaphor in poetry can be found in a piece by Frank O’Hara, which takes the idea of a man trying to reach his lover and brings it out to sea. O’Hara writes: “I wanted to be sure to reach you / though my ship was on the way it got caught / in some moorings. I am always tying up / and then deciding to depart...”. Like Frost, O’Hara’s extended metaphor continues through to the end, though there is no clear resolution: “I trust the sanity of my vessel; and / if it sinks, it may well be in answer / to the reasoning of the eternal voices / the waves which have kept me from reaching you.”

Dean Koontz, Seize the Night 

Author Dean Koontz employs an extended metaphor in Seize the Night, the second book in his Moonlight Bay series, with a comparison the main character makes between his imagination and an action-packed (and understandably chaotic) three-hundred ring circus: “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.

3 Tips for Writing Extended Metaphors

There is no single correct way to use an extended metaphor, just like there is no single way to use idioms, similes, or other figurative devices. There are, however, some guidelines that you can keep in mind as you explore how to write extended metaphors and start to get more comfortable using them in your work.

1. Be Purposeful

There is no point in using an extended metaphor just for the sake of it. Unlike standard metaphors, which are meant to provide just a bit of additional context, extended metaphors serve a significant role in dictating the overall meaning of the work. If you write one, make sure that it has a clear purpose and direction—and that it’s clear to your audience what you’re trying to do.

2. Stick to One Comparison

If you try to work multiple comparisons into one extended metaphor, you’ll end up muddling your message and confusing your readers. After all, while you can find common metaphors referring to life as a highway and as a song, it wouldn’t work to say that life is like a highway and a song; the metaphors can only work separately. This is something to be particularly conscious of with an extended metaphor, since the longer your metaphor goes on, the greater the likelihood of it veering off track.   

3. Don’t Overreach

You can technically draw a comparison between any two things, but that doesn’t mean it’s always worth it to do so. The further you have to stretch to make your extended metaphor work, the less of a positive impact it’s going to have on the piece that you’re writing. If you’re really committed to making a figurative comparison, but it doesn’t lend itself well to an extended metaphor, try to fit it into another literary device instead.

Extend Your Creativity

As always, the best way to master extended metaphors is to practice writing them. Give yourself the challenge of trying to write an extended metaphor from a sentence into a paragraph, or go all in and try to write an entire extended metaphor poem. Once you’ve got the basics down, you can start to refine your process and figure out how to make optimal use of the device. 

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