Using Metaphor to Develop Mood, Tone, & Voice: Lessons from Blackbirds

Anyone who follows my posts may be thinking Story Trumps Structure by Steven James is my writing bible. And that’d be correct. However, I do have apocryphal texts, one of which is The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience by Chuck Wendig.

Find it on Amazon here

If you haven’t read The Kick-Ass Writer, the hell are you doing wasting time on my drivel? Go read it! Wendig’s advice is the right mix of irreverent wit, heart-warming encouragement, and dont-give-me-those-bullshit-excuses tough love. You should check out his blog too, which is just as entertaining.

How did he come to be such a guru of the written word?

By writing.

I think I can hear the eye-rolling in the back. But it’s true! To me, the one piece of advice that sticks out above his other 1000 tips is: Write, write, write, goddamn it, write! (followed closely by its corollary: FINISH YOUR SHIT).

And write he has. In doing so, Wendig has developed a voice on par with Christopher Moore and Tom Robbins. Now I hear the groans; ugh, there’s that word: voice. Seems every agent is searching for a captivating voice. A unique voice. A fresh voice. The hell does it mean?

Every word you choose is your voice. Its the personality that emerges from those thousands (millions?) of choices. A novel’s voice is tied closely to its mood and tone. Oh crap; now what do those terms mean? To quote Story Trumps Structure:

Tone is the attitude of the story.

Mood is the atmosphere.

… Think of a stage play. The mood is established by the lighting, sets, and music. The tone is conveyed through dialogue and acting. The voice is the distinctive style of storytelling (terse, verbose, explanatory, etc.) that sets the play apart from others in the genre.

Whatever voice you choose for your story, introduce it early and keep it consistent…

Which brings us back to Wendig and his thriller, Blackbirds, the first novel in the Miram Black series.

In this novel, Wendig relies heavily on metaphorical language to set mood, tone, and voice. Here’s the first description we get of the MC, Miriam Black:

I look like something blown in off a dusty highway

Nothing romantic or flowery here. The simile invokes something used-up, thrown away, dirty. The narrator’s tone (attitude) is jaded and unsentimental.

In the book’s first scene, Miriam watches her “mark” die from an epileptic seizure, and gets physically sick; metaphorical language is used to establish the mood:

The nausea recedes, a septic tide washing the poison back to sea.

Septic. Poison. With these words, Wendig breathes something noxious into the story’s atmosphere. When describing setting, metaphorical language is a powerful tool to control mood. Observe:

Waffle House, a staple of the American South, is essentially a greasy yellow coffin.

The trailer park reminds Harriet of a graveyard… Gray and white boxes. All lined up, one after the next. They’re like headstones she thinks, or rows of tombs, each marked with dead and dying flowers.

It’s one of those mornings. Sky’s just a Vaseline smear of formless clouds– a bright, greasy layer of gray.

Throughout the rest of the book, figurative language is employed to the same effect. In the following passages, the visceral details of bodily disease communicate the narrator’s attitude towards each of the respective things being described:

The book is swollen, like a tumor filled with words instead of blood.

She seriously considers telling him the truth. Something inside her wants to spray out of her like popping a raw, red zit.

The woman doesn’t budge. She’s like a kidney stone lodged in the urethra– not going anywhere.

Figurative language is also used to modulate the mood and tone of the narrator’s internal dialogue:

Her heart flutters like a bird with a broken wing.

The adjective “broken” isn’t accidental; a heart simply “fluttering like a bird” wouldn’t have been evocative of the MC’s damaged mental and emotional state.

Everything feels like a wave crashing down on her. She closes her eyes and thinks maybe this is how it has to go. This is fate, after all. Destiny. The undertow will pull her down one of these days. It’ll drag her out to sea. Forever lost within the swaying seaweed and fish bones.

Though a “wave crashing down” is hardly original to describe a deluge of overwhelming events, Wendig extends the metaphor. He uses words like “undertow,” “sea,” and “fish bones” to continue the comparison of fate to the merciless pull of the sea.

These were just a few of the many great metaphors Wendig uses throughout Blackbirds. Check out this book (and the rest in its series) to experience how an author’s choice of metaphor can influence a story’s tone, mood, and voice.


James, Steven. Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules. Writer’s Digest Books, 2014. pp 22-23.

Wendig, Chuck. Blackbirds. Saga Press, 2015. pp 3, 11, 58, 76-77 102, 107, 116, 158, 229

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