Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Similes and Metaphors That WORK

One thing I love about writing is using figures of speech such as similes and metaphors. Doing this well is important--and I'm still learning how to do it.

Simile Definition
A simile compares two things, usually using the words LIKE or AS. This is extremely helpful when world-building and introducing objects unfamiliar to the reader; a link can be made to a more familiar object or concept.

Example of a simple comparison: Her hair was as golden as daffodils in the sun.
Example to clarify or reveal an unknown: Jon looked up to see a robot built like a champion wrestler.

Metaphor Definition
A metaphor is a direct comparison that says something IS something else, an equation. It is thus more powerful than a simile. It can be symbolic, like a heart "breaking."

Example: The long fingers of the setting sun stretched across the valley.
Example: Jeanine enters the room, a brilliant peacock in a crowd of pigeons.

Does the sun really have fingers, and is Jeanine really a peacock? Of course not. But when the comparison is made, the reader immediately gets a proper image.

Here are some guidelines for using these figures of speech:

1. Don't mix and muddle
Compare one thing to another, but make sure the things are actually similar in quality and function. Don't have a character's anger burning as it washes over them like a flood.
2. Fit them to the character
If your character is a city-girl, don't have her look at something and be reminded of a meadow or farm animal. This is especially important for novels written in first person, where all narrative and description are filtered through the viewpoint of the main character/s.
3. Fit them to the story, tone, or genre
If you write science fiction, don't use agricultural similes. If your novel is totally serious, be careful using quirky or humorous comparisons. Stay consistent with your voice.
4. Fit them to your reader
Especially if your readers are pre-teens or teens, try not to compare things that are obtuse, over their heads, or references to the past (songs, movies, actors). Your comparison will be lost and therefore worthless. Keep your audience in mind.
5. Keep them simple
Don't use convoluted comparisons, long-winded sentences, or needlessly complex images. Ask yourself: do I really need all those adjectives (verdant, sparkling) and prepositional phrases (of the sky, in the meadow, by the house)?
6. Keep them low-key
Go for memorable, but not so stunning or unique that it jolts a reader right out of the story. I personally love to pause to savor a lovely simile, but others DO mind.
7. Don't be cliché
If you've heard a comparison before, don't use it! Stretch yourself. Invent unique comparisons--or introduce a fresh element to a known cliché. (Although clichés often work well in parody or spoof writing.)

Common clichés:
My hands felt cold as ice.
The stars in the sky sparkle like diamonds.
Razera's eyes, as black as coal, stared into mine.
He lay sprawled across the garage floor, as dead as a doornail.
Tania's grandfather is a bear in the mornings before he has his coffee.

Example of freshening up a cliché: Lila's thoughts spun like a blender on crack.

Do you like to use similes or metaphors in your writing?
When you read a stunning simile or metaphor, do you pause to enjoy it, or does it jar you out of the story and disturb your overall enjoyment?
Can you rewrite one or more of the cliché sentences above to make them more unique?


  1. I love using figures of speech in my own writing -- one of the real young masters of simile and metaphor is Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! She's got three or four gems on every single page; and you don't mind pausing to sigh over her talent for them. Highly recommend, if you're interested.

  2. Hi Carol: I enjoyed your list of cautions. Most of them seem part of my intuitive process, but I am glad to become more conscious! In answer to your question, I, too, love to savor strong metaphors and similes. From, Sara-Lynne

  3. I especially agree with number four-- too many times have I come across some sort of cultural reference in writing that had me frowning and going to my laptop because I just couldn't figure it out. Thankfully for the writer I'm the kind of person who actually will do that, but others might just put the book down and walk away.

    I love your little similie there at the end, btw. :)

  4. Hmm... for a rewritten cliche, how about:

    My hands were colder than a shaved polar bear in the arctic circle.

    Too long, probably. :D

  5. Thanks for the great post, Carol. I find myself gravitating toward alliteration; I need to inject my writing with more metaphors! ^_^
    Happy New Year!

  6. Like a blender on crack? LOL! Great article, thanks for sharing. I'd add that in first person, you also want to honor her voice, not have her say something out of character for the sake of being clever. That kind of writing sticks out like a...

  7. Great post. I love Like a blender on crack. Where did you get that one? LOL

  8. Great tips Carol. Thanks for simplifying what I was confused by at school ...LOL

  9. I pause to enjoy beautiful similes and metaphors.

    These were great reminders. I have to catch cliches when I'm editing since I can be guilty of them.

  10. I really loved this post.

    Such important tips to spice up our words.

  11. Very simple, basic and necessary advice. These are the little things that make all the difference, I think. Thanks for this!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  12. Sometimes I think I like them too much. ;-)

    Just stopped by to wish you a wonderful new year.

  13. I love to read beautifully turned phrases, and more often than not, they employ a metaphor or a simile.
    BTW, I left an award for you on my blog. Stop by and pick it up (and pass it on.)

  14. Thanks for sharing these awesome tips!!!

  15. I have a hard time with using metaphors. I figure if I can't use them well, I should avoid them. Thanks for sharing all these tips.

    Have a Happy New Year!

  16. I love metaphors! The cliched metaphors can be fun if they show up in character dialogue, and one of the characters likes using them . . . I've seen that done successfully for a bit of humor.

  17. Hey Gail Shepard, I heard Karen Russel talk on "The Book Report' radio program the other day. If we want to better our English it would be good to read her book, 'Swamplandia', as I find I need some imagination when it comes to Metaphors.

  18. Yes, I love similes and metaphors! And I don't mind coming out of the story to appreciate a really excellent one. I do go back and try to axe all cliches.

    Happy New Year!

  19. "blender on crack" ROFL! I like that.

    Thanks for the tips. I have a hard time with metaphors and have been working on improving since I do enjoy reading a good one.

  20. Thanks for the list. An clarification on these foggy matters is a great help. Happy New Year to you and yours!

  21. Happy New Year!

    Love your tips and examples. I definitely like using them. I've heard that you should sprinkle these in. :)

  22. I really LOVE metaphors, done well, though your point of not carrying it out too far or making it too complicated is a great one. The 'purple prose' awards are FULL of that. I'm not great at writing them--I tend to use fairly simple language, but it is something I want to work on. I HAVE made use of characters who use cliched metaphors and similes. It is campy and a little over-the-top, but in Cozy mysteries a character like that fits pretty well.

  23. I love similes and metaphors. I often pause to breathe in a creative and unique simile or metaphor.

    Great tips and examples!

  24. I love similies and metaphors. I am striving to improve my usage of them in my writing. YIKES.

  25. Great tips, Carol! I do try to be conscious about making my similes and metaphors fit the theme and world of my story - it's fun researching likely comparisons!

  26. I'm beginning to prefer metaphors over similies because they can be so memorable and visual. They are both great tools, though, when used in moderation. Thanks for the tips!

  27. "Blender on crack" LOL. Great post Carol. It's amazing how much a cliched simile/metaphor jolts me out of a story these days.




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