Hi, SE Readers. Joan here today. We’ve all heard of similes and metaphors. Most of us have probably used them in our writing at some point. Using a simile or metaphor is an easy way to describe a character’s personality or what they are feeling.
Both similes and metaphors are used to make comparisons, but there is a difference. A smile uses the words “like” or “as” to compare things. Let’s look at some examples:
He watched her like a hawk.
Life is like a box of chocolates. (Forrest Gump)
She was as cold as ice.
Metaphors, on the other hand, state a direct comparison.
He is an impenetrable wall.
All the world is a stage. (William Shakespeare)
All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind. (Khalil Gibran)
Both similes and metaphors can be useful tools. They can spark a reader’s imagination and at the same time, get your message across.
For instance, take the quote from Forrest Gump. If you’ve ever been the recipient of a mixed box of chocolates without the benefit of knowing what is inside each piece, you understand. You might bite into one expecting to find almonds or pecans inside and find it’s filled with yucky orange or lemon cream. Like the chocolates, life is filled with unexpected twists and turns, and not all of them are pleasant.
But can we overuse similes or metaphors? Is there a better way to convey our message?
The keyword here is show. Don’t tell. Yes, we hear this advice repeatedly, but it’s always better when we can show our reader.
Let’s look at the difference
He watched her like a hawk.
Let’s look at how we might show. The example is from my latest novel.
Some occasions required a person to be an extrovert. To mingle with the crowd. Other times one needed to blend into the background. Being able to disguise oneself had its advantages. The ability to be virtually unrecognizable.
Tonight was a time to remain hidden. To observe. Three couples sat at a table close to the stage. Who wouldn’t envy the brunette and her six-foot-four husband? Or the auburn-haired physician and her successful man? But the third couple was the most intriguing.
What exactly was between them? Casual friendship? Something more? The desire to know had been festering for several weeks. It was the reason for tonight’s visit to Pinnacle. To confirm what was already feared.
Which gives the stronger message? Brings more emotion? Increases the tension?
We also need to be aware of using two incompatible metaphors. These are known as mixed metaphors.
This tower of strength will forge ahead.
A tower is a fixed object. It cannot move itself, therefore it can’t forge ahead.
Let’s take a look at a couple of similes from literature that do work.
“…she had tried to get rid of the kitten which had scrambled up her back and stuck like a burr just out of reach.” [Little Women by Louisa May Alcott]
“Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.” [The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood]
In these examples, the words flow and do not call attention to themselves. If well-written, the reader may not even be aware the writer has used a simile.
Using an occasional simile or metaphor is acceptable, but always stop and ask yourself the following questions:
- Is there a way to write this better?
- Am I using similes or metaphors as crutches?
- Have I used too many similes?
- Is this a mixed metaphor?
- Does the simile or metaphor strengthen or weaken my writing?
Let’s hear from you. Do you use similes or metaphors? Do you “bump” on them when reading? Leave a comment below.