Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When it comes to improving your craft, a mastery of imagery is key. Being able to present the world outside the literal truth opens up a vista of possibilities that are otherwise closed off. Suddenly, characters, locations, and events can be anything, if only for a moment, vastly enhancing your ability to write unique, emotive prose.
To that end, today I’ll be talking about similes and metaphors – figures of speech which characterize one thing by comparing it to another. Now, it’s likely that you’re already comfortable using these devices (even if you don’t know exactly how they differ), but plenty of authors have a habit of never truly revisiting those writing tools with which they’re already comfortable. This leads to writers going their whole careers only ever using metaphors, or authors who can use similes on instinct but never consider them as part of the editing process.
Of course, we’re not just talking about what similes and metaphors are, we’re talking about how to master them. That’s the focus of part 2 of this article, but here in part 1, we’ll build up to that point by exploring what similes and metaphors are, how they work, and how you can choose between them in your writing.
Similes and metaphors – what’s the difference?
Similes and metaphors are both figures of speech that involve describing something in relation to something else. This is what’s happening when the Brothers Grimm describe Snow White as having, ‘Skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony.’
Similes use the words ‘as’ or ‘like’ to compare one thing to another, as in the description above. Metaphors, on the other hand, phrase such comparisons as if one thing is another. Converting the Snow White similes to metaphors gives us something like, ‘Her skin was snow, her lips blood, her hair ebony.’ Here, we’re claiming that one thing is another rather than just saying one thing is similar to another. If, by the way, you need a way to remember the difference, that’s a useful mnemonic; similes are similar, metaphors are… the other one.
Simile: In battle, he was as brave as a lion.
Metaphor: He was a lion in battle!
Simile: Love is like a battlefield.
Metaphor: Love is a battlefield.
Simile: This is like being in paradise!
Metaphor: I’m in paradise.
Similes tend to be easier to use than metaphors, as they include a direct cue that they shouldn’t be taken literally. No-one, for instance, would misunderstand the simile above and think that a lion has suddenly entered the story, since the comparison is clearly theoretical. The metaphor, however, could be misinterpreted under certain circumstances (for instance, if your story includes animal characters), and so part of using metaphor effectively is ensuring that the reader has the context to divide reality from imagery.
By the same token, metaphors tend to be a little stronger than similes, since saying that something is something is a lot more direct than saying it’s like something. This leads many authors to decide that similes are a cowardly half-measure, but the two have different strengths, and both have a place in good writing.
How to choose between simile and metaphor
Similes tend to be gentler than metaphors, but they’re also clearer. As mentioned, metaphors depend on context for clarity, whereas similes bring their own. Consider, for example, the phrase, ‘He’s like a brother to me.’ From this, we know that the person under discussion is not the speaker’s biological brother but that they’ve demonstrated the stereotypical qualities of a brother toward them. In contrast, consider, ‘He’s my brother.’ There are scenes where the same intended meaning would be clear, but there are just as many where the reader would assume this is a statement indicating a literal sibling.
Similes can also be more powerful than metaphors in the right situation. If a phrase is clichéd or hyperbolic, the more understated nature of a simile can help it cut through and gain the reader’s favor. Imagine a scene where a character is waiting to hear news about the health of their child. They could use the metaphor, ‘This is torture,’ but that’s a sentiment readers have heard time and again, and while it says what it needs to, it’s expected enough that it’s unlikely to really grab them.
Part of the reason behind this is that humans are contrary creatures. If someone says ‘A is B’ and we know that’s not the case, some subconscious part of us pushes back, replying, ‘No, it isn’t.’ Of course, if you can silence that part with a compelling enough statement, the effect is even more impressive, but if not, you alienate the reader. Because of this, a simile such as, ‘This is like torture,’ could actually be more effective, since you don’t get that instinctive pushback.
Another benefit of similes is that they’re a little more malleable than metaphors. As already mentioned, metaphors can need support to be clear, and they often also need space. If you bury a metaphor in an otherwise busy sentence or paragraph, the reader can struggle to smoothly pick up what you’re saying.
In the extract below, the author uses a compelling image to help round out a quick introductory character sketch. It’s a fantastic simile, both providing a compelling image and conveying a sense of faint disgust, but it’s also part of a larger description, and a self-contained simile allows for smoother writing than if the author had chosen to use, and therefore needed to clarify, a direct metaphor.
Sitting in splendid isolation against the upholstery of the carriage was a thin man, bald beneath his silk topper, his black-gloved hands bulging like burnt sausages as he gripped the head of his cane.– Mark Gatiss, The Vesuvius Club
Similes are also ephemeral – they pass quickly – while metaphors tend to linger. When you say ‘A is B,’ the reader is invited to think about the ways that statement is true and false. When you say ‘A is like B,’ the reader is instead invited to identify the point of comparison and then move on. In the extract below, the author uses metaphor rather than simile, allowing him room to stretch the idea out and explore it in more detail.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.– Alfred Noyes, ‘The Highwayman’
Noyes is painting a larger picture here, so it’s beneficial for the idea of ‘moon as galleon’ to linger, since he’s about to say something else that works with that image. If both instances are turned into similes, you can see that the wasted time undercuts the sentiment:
The moon was like a ghostly galleon tossed upon clouds that were like the seas.
In contrast, similes pass quickly, which is ideal if you have a single image that you don’t want to influence what comes before or after. In the extract below, the simile ‘like a doll’s eyes’ is creepy, but there’s no further doll or toy imagery – in fact, the passage reverts back to the real world.
Y’know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at you, doesn’t seem to be livin’ until he bites you. And those black eyes roll over white, and then, oh, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’, the ocean turns red, and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and they rip you to pieces.– Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, Jaws
Here, the simile is placed after the basic description, used to cement an image rather than introduce it, which also helps it pass quickly. It’s a creepy image, but as the next sentence begins, you’re no longer supposed to be thinking about dolls; it was just a comparison.
So, similes are easier to implement, they play better with the rest of the sentence, they’re malleable, and sometimes they’re more powerful. How come anyone even bothers with metaphors?
Well, a good metaphor is an explosion of meaning. Unlike similes, metaphors cut out everything unnecessary, which usually makes them feel both more sincere and more emphatic. If you’re looking to really blow someone’s mind, a metaphor is usually the way to go. In the extract below, the author makes a big, bold statement about the world via an extended metaphor.
We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.– H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
This is a striking passage. Once the metaphor of humanity’s metaphysical situation as geographical place is established, Lovecraft runs with it, and he’s able to make a big idea recognizable and compelling in few words. Rendered in simile, this passage just doesn’t work:
The part of life we’re aware of is like a placid island. All the rest of infinity is like a black sea, on which life is like a journey, and we weren’t meant to go far.
Metaphors also leave more room for the reader’s own interpretation. As I said earlier, similes are something of a riddle; they suggest a single point of connection, with the idea that the reader recognizes that connection and derives satisfaction from their short journey. Metaphors, on the other hand, turn one thing into another, allowing for multiple points of connection. The author can suggest which of these the reader should prioritize, but they also leave room for whatever is most compelling to any individual reader. When Shakespeare writes, ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances,’ he’s not just posing an image, he’s posing a philosophical stance, and the reader gets to interpret it in the way most compelling to them.
Similarly, the reader gets to set their own level of investment. While a failed metaphor will bomb harder than a failed simile, it also leaves more room to be accepted. If the moon is a ghostly galleon, it’s up to you whether it’s just glowing, or whether it seems to bob on the clouds, or whether it’s a haunting, deathly ship manned by the dead.
Finally, metaphors have a lot more meat on their bones. You can use them once, for a great image, or multiple times to set the mood, or you can bring them back again and again to really mine them for meaning. In Why More Authors Should Harness The Power Of Conceit, I talked about the idea of a ‘conceit’ – an extended metaphor that runs through a work, allowing the author to branch off in myriad creative ways. Of course, even the core ideas of your story might be metaphorical – Animal Farm, after all, is about more than pigs.
In Marvel’s X-Men comics, fictional ‘mutants’ are used as a larger metaphor for various marginalized groups, allowing writers to discuss topics of race, gender, and sexuality as suits the story. If this veered closer to simile – if the stories drew specific but limited comparison between the lot of mutants and marginalized groups, as and when required – each story would have to establish and justify this link, whereas a running metaphor allows for more immediate, more affecting storytelling.
So, metaphors tend to be better for significant comparisons, since they land with a bang and will stick around long enough to explore beyond the immediate moment. Similes, meanwhile, tend to be better for comparisons that you want to fade quickly, and they’re clearer when not used as the focus of a sentence or paragraph. Of course, nothing in art is absolute, and there will be times when an unexpected simile cuts through where a metaphor can’t, or where a direct metaphor offers simpler phrasing than a particular simile. As with any writing device, understanding the basics is what allows you to make real-time choices in your own writing.
That’s how you can choose whether to use a metaphor or a simile, but I promised we’d master them, so join me in How To Master Similes And Metaphors In Your Writing – Part 2, where we’ll discuss how to make your metaphors and similes more compelling, as well as the specific pitfalls that await authors experimenting with figurative language.