Image: Matthew Loffhagen
A dedicated author never stops searching for new tools to use in their writing, and happily language seldom disappoints. One tool that’s often ignored, but has a great deal to offer writers, is conceit.
In this article, I’ll be exploring what conceit means to an author, and how you can incorporate the use of conceit into your own work to great effect.
What is conceit?
Conceit is an extended metaphor that uses striking or unusual imagery to make the reader re-examine the subject. Perhaps the most famous use of conceit is in John Donne’s poem ‘The Flea’.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
– John Donne, ‘The Flea’
In this section of the poem, Donne argues to a potential lover that she should not kill a flea that has bitten them both, because within it, their blood is mingled and they are bonded to the point of marriage. The conceit in this section is that the flea is the temple of their marriage. The reference to ‘living walls of jet’ conjures up fantastical imagery of this metaphorical structure, and emphasizes what a crime the woman’s actions would be – she would not be squashing an insect, but destroying a temple.
It’s important to note two things that make conceit a unique literary device, rather than just another term for a metaphor. The first is that it is subject to protracted use. Donne doesn’t just say that the flea is a temple, he goes on to provide a physical description that links both the physical reality of the flea and the metaphor of the temple. Time is taken to strengthen the assertion, and to make it vivid.
This is the second thing to note about use of conceit; it is not just an extended metaphor, but one which is fantastic, even hyperbolic. Utilizing an unusual example interests the reader and invites them to engage more fully with the imagery. Donne uses this for humor, as the reader understands the absurdity of imagining a flea as a physical temple.
Conceit can also be used seriously. If a comparison is meant sincerely then extending it, allowing the reader to ‘look around’ the metaphor, can emphasize its accuracy. The fact that you have used an unusual or shocking comparison also helps to make your point more exciting and persuasive to the reader.
Combined, these qualities make conceit a very effective way of making a point.
So how can you go about creating your own?
Using conceit in your writing
Conceit is great for creating a mood, or heightening the emotion of a scene. It gives you the ability to confront the reader with something that isn’t really there, but is incredibly evocative.
In Shuffle Leonard Michaels uses the conceit of a monstrous heart to describe a mattress.
The mattress, unusually thick, like a fat, luxurious heart, was sealed, lashed down by bedcovers and the sheets.
– Leonard Michaels, Shuffle
This conceit makes a calm domestic scene seem repulsive and dangerous. The idea of a huge organ, viscerally ‘thick’, that has had to be lashed down makes an everyday item feel grotesque and threatening. Without having anything happen in the plot, without drawing on any real physical danger, Michaels creates an undeniable atmosphere.
The more shocking and descriptive your conceit, the more effective it can be in communicating your point. Readers will feel that you’re giving them a glimpse into a higher plane of truth, a sort of dream reality that doesn’t influence the story but wildly influences how they see its events.
Given that conceit can feel so otherworldly, it’s usually best to let it come from a character.
It’s difficult to write conceit in the third person without the reader becoming aware of your presence as the author. Conceit depends on unusual, imaginative imagery, so it’s difficult to keep the personality of the writer from becoming apparent.
An easy way to dodge this problem is to have a character present your conceit. Whether they do so in dialogue, first person, or third person (‘Hannah thought he looked like a…’), the conceit is now coming from them, and so the personality behind the conceit is more easily accepted by the reader.
Some authors’ writing styles will suit a straight use of conceit. This comes down to whether unusual extended metaphors suit your voice, and whether or not you want your reader to forget the story is being ‘told’. This is one of the major drawbacks of using conceit in your writing, but it’s not the most risky.
When conceit goes wrong
The major problem you’ll face when using conceit is the possibility of it going wrong. If the reader decides they don’t agree with, or enjoy, your conceit then it’s possible they’ll find it irritating. The fact that conceit is often extreme and extended means this irritation is no small problem.
For example, see this example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo compares Juliet to a boat lost in a storm.
Thou counterfeit’st a bark, a sea, a wind;
For still thy eyes, which I may call the sea,
Do ebb and flow with tears; the bark thy body is,
Sailing in this salt flood; the winds, thy sighs;
Who, raging with thy tears, and they with them,
Without a sudden calm, will overset
Thy tempest-tossed body.
– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Juliet’s body becomes a ‘tempest-tossed’ boat, while her sighs become winds and her eyes the sea. Written by a master of the English language, it’s nevertheless easy to see how someone could take against this conceit. If a reader decides a serious use of conceit is silly, or a funny use boring, then the extended nature of the device means they have to either put up with or skip a lot before it’s over.
Happily this problem is also lessened by having conceit come from a character; the reader will receive the use of conceit as bad judgement on behalf of the character, rather than poor writing on behalf of the author.
The solution is to be confident in your conceit and to avoid self-indulgence. Only include those aspects of your conceit that promote or emphasize your point. Be honest when identifying and removing any sections that just serve to either a) show your gift with words, or b) show how cool your conceit is. If your use of conceit makes sense then it will withstand a critical eye, and even if the reader doesn’t like it they’ll be able to see what you’re trying to say.
Getting the most from conceit
One final thing to note about conceit is how resilient it is. Because the imagery is so striking, and the audience has time to explore and understand the comparison, conceit tends to stick with readers all the way through a work.
This means that if you have a strong use of conceit then you have a pool of imagery you can return to, or contradict, later in a piece.
Shuffle’s bed-as-heart metaphor opens up a great deal of useful imagery. From that point on any mention of hearts, beds, restraint, or sleep offers an easy segue to the atmosphere established in the original conceit.
Reversal is just as effective; if a bed is a thudding heart in one section, and something pleasant in another, then you don’t just create different atmospheres, but atmospheres that are super-charged by their contrast. This is an easy way to characterize other elements of the story, such as the person the protagonist is going to bed with, or the place in which they’re sleeping. Reversing an earlier use of conceit is a good way to show the protagonist is with the right person, or finally in the right place.
This is why conceit is so commonly applied to locations – writers love to say ‘the city was like a woman’. The conceit can always be revisited and changed to show the character’s changing fate and fortunes. The first conceit establishes the reader’s interest and awareness of the atmosphere, something which persists for subsequent changes.
Practise makes perfect
The best way to learn how and when to use conceit is to practise. Happily conceit can be written in a vacuum – simply choose a subject, identify the aspect you want to emphasize, and construct conceit that does the job. As with most writing tools, the more experience you having doing it, the better you’ll get.
For more on improving your writing check out Shakespeare invented words, should you do it too? and 4 creative writing exercises that will improve your craft.