To Wit: An E-zine On How To Be a Wit

This is an E-zine from Thomas Christopher on how to be witty.


I'm offering T-shirts and other self-expression products designed using the techniques discussed here. I've set up an online "store" at My portal site to CafePress and is I expect to use many of the designs as examples in this e-zine.

Levity is the soul of wit; brevity, its body.

A Procedure For Finding Metaphors

Back in school, I was often been told to find a good metaphor. I was never told how to find one, but in this e-zine, I'll tell you how you can find one.

We start off with something we wish to explain by the metaphor, what the metaphor is about. This is called the "tenor" for no good reason that I know of. A few people call it the target. The metaphor equates tenor to some other thing, called the "vehicle" (or source). The tenor and the vehicle must have something in common, called the "ground." Without the ground, the reaction to the metaphor will be "Huh?"

Knowing that we need those three things, tenor, ground, and vehicle, we can now look at the procedure.

Let's say we want some metaphors for LIFE, not as the biological process, but as the human experience.

Step 1. We list the associations we have for the tenor, its attributes certainly, but also people, places, things, events, activities, anything that comes to mind. Somewhere in these associations is the ground.

For LIFE, we find: duration, beginning, middle, end, people, places, actions, intentions, love, family, friends, risks, rewards, successes, failures, ...

Step 2. For each potential ground, we list other things that have that association. Each of these is a potential vehicle.

A STORY shares many of those associations for LIFE. Let's just use "a STORY" as the vehicle.

Step 3. For each potential vehicle, we list more specific kinds of it.

A STORY can be a fable, folktale, tall tale, novel, short story, play, screen play, ...

We can go further and list even more specific types.

A PLAY can be a tragedy, a comedy, a melodrama, a farce, an improv, ...

We can go still further by listing specific instances.

Plays include Macbeth, The Importance of Being Earnest, Harvey, ... For a useful metaphor, we need to restrict ourselves to those our audience is likely to know.

Just as STORY is a potential vehicle for LIFE, so are PLAY and each of the kinds of play, and each specific play.

Step 4. For each potential vehicle, we list associations for it.

A PLAY has a director, a cast of actors, stage hands, prompters, producers, financial backers, an audience, tickets, a stage, seats, sets, a script (unless it is improv), ...

Step 5. Here's where the magic happens. We scan over the associations for a potential vehicle, looking for something we can say about them or pairs of them or groups of them. We say something about their relationships and interactions. We see if what we say about them seems itself to say something about the tenor and things associated with it.

For LIFE IS A PLAY, I came up with:

Some of us do improv while the rest argue over the script.

You can always make your life into a melodrama.

I'm waiting to stage my life story until I get some financial backers.

The drama of life has no shortage of would-be directors.

One of the problems with the drama of life is that the stage hands all think they are actors.

One trick in this step is to use the rhetorical scheme TRICOLON, that is, use triples. If two things are commonly paired, such as opposites or the two alternatives, find a third thing to put together with them.

If we say, "Some lives are tragedies, and some are comedies" that's trite. So we add a third thing:

Some lives are tragedies. Some are comedies. Some are farces.

Similarly, actors and audience are often paired, so add a third thing:

Some are actors. Some are audience. Some are prompters.
Step 6. We choose a few possible metaphors. As always, we revise, rephrase, re-slant, elaborate. We need to give special attention to making them more concrete and specific.

For example, the last two examples in Step 5 can be reworked into:

Some are actors. Some are audience. Some are prompters clutching last year's script.

Some lives are tragedies. Some are comedies. I'm auditioning for a bedroom farce.

Will this procedure always work? Nothing always works. There can be problems anywhere along the line. If the magic doesn't happen in Step 5, if you can look at lists of associations and not get a single idea, maybe metaphors aren't for you.

If you usually find really good metaphors, but you aren't finding them for one particular vehicle, don't worry, this procedure gives a multitude of possibilities. Indeed, that can be a criticism. There are so many associations and so many possible vehicles, that it could take you ages to explore them all. But you don't have to do all of Step 1 before starting Step 2 and all of Step 2 before starting Step 3. When something comes up that looks promising, you can always follow the rest of the steps on that before continuing what you were doing. It is better though, if you complete writing one list of associations before choosing one of them to pursue. It takes a few minutes to get your head working on one thing. Don't waste that start-up time.

There you have it, a procedure for finding really good metaphors and, of course, similes and analogies as well. This procedure works beautifully for me. Try it and see how it works for you.

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Thomas Christopher, Ph.D.: Seminars, Speeches, Consulting
1140 Portland Place #205, Boulder CO 80304, 303-709-5659,
Books through Prentice Hall PTR, albeit not related to wit: High-Performance Java Platform Computing, ISBN: 0130161640, Web Programming in Python, ISBN: 0-13-041065-9, Python Programming Patterns, ISBN: 0-13-040956-1