Image: Matthew Loffhagen
In part 1 of this article (available here), I talked about what similes and metaphors are, how they differ, and how to choose between them in your writing. In this, part 2, we’ll be discussing how to really master these examples of figurative language; how to write better similes and metaphors, how to adopt figurative language into your writing style, and how to avoid the pitfalls that come with writing something other than the literal.
Let’s begin, then, with the first thing you have to get right: actually using similes and metaphors in your writing.
Adopting figurative language
Some writers automatically reach for similes and metaphors at the first opportunity, while others don’t have the instinct to involve figurative language unless prompted by an outside force. Neither side is better than the other, and while similes and metaphors are valuable tools, it’s worth noting that, like all tools, they need to be used in the right circumstances. A boring detail expanded via metaphor just stretches out the boredom, and a complex idea that isn’t actually simplified by its simile is likely to become even harder to follow.
There are also those authors who tend to only use metaphors or only use similes. This is a natural tendency – the preference for saying that a thing is like something else or that a thing is something else comes from deeper instincts for how ideas are expressed – but it’s a tendency you can unlearn, giving yourself more choice in your figurative language.
The first step in taking more control over your use of metaphor and simile is to understand their individual strengths. Happily, we already covered that in part 1:
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.
The next step is to start looking for opportunities to use similes and metaphors. For similes, this will usually be places of outright description: character introductions, setting descriptions, and especially character interactions, where attitudes, modes of speech, and gestures can be made more compelling by imaginative comparisons.
Find such sections and identify where you would put a simile if you had to. Add it in, reworking it until it’s in its best form. Mark it in some way that will make it easy to find later and then, after a week or so, examine whether you prefer the section with or without it. Given the freedom to add similes without having to keep them, you’ll find a lot of places where a simile unnecessarily expands a simple point, but you’ll also find a few places where figurative writing clarifies or enlivens your scene.
With metaphors, things are a little different, but musicals may help you identify where this type of figurative language belongs. In good musicals, songs aren’t there to fill a space or enliven a dull scene, but rather to expand the focus on a juicy moment. In most musicals, the musical numbers are where characters belt out their thoughts, their desires, their personal motivations – songs aren’t developed randomly, but rather to serve those moments that reward scrutiny.
Metaphors work in a similar way, and thinking of them like musical numbers could help develop your instincts for where they belong. Do you drop a musical number into a boring moment, just to liven things up? No – the solution there is to rewrite the moment. Do you use a musical number to offer new viewpoints on a relatively simple idea? No – don’t waste the reader’s time just to show off. Do you use musical numbers to expand and simplify complex ideas and/or add energy to necessary exposition? Ding ding ding.
Learn to reach for metaphors in those moments where you’re getting ready to write something that you either don’t know how to explain or aren’t excited about putting to paper. Got two characters where one knows the other’s secret but is keeping quiet for now? That could take some explaining, but if you describe them as Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, you can buy the reader’s interest and good will while you do the necessary work. Need to describe a basement in detail that’ll be relevant later? Describe it as a troll’s bolthole and maintain the reader’s interest by revisiting the metaphor as needed – ‘numerous cupboards and shelves, perfect for stacking the bones of goats snatched from bridges.’
Of course, the more you use these techniques, the more skilled you’ll become, so it’s worth digging out old projects and applying the logic above, rather than just waiting for new opportunities to come along.
Avoiding the pitfalls of figurative language
Similes and metaphors draw the reader’s attention so, like any writing device, they hurt your writing when they fail. A poor or confusing comparison will drag your reader out of the story and set them on a parallel track where, for a little while, they’re not working in concert with your storytelling. That’s not ideal, but it’s also not a huge problem. These are the risks of any writing device, and while a misjudged simile or metaphor isn’t great, you’ll find examples of both in even the most popular books.
With this in mind, learning to use similes and metaphors is worth the risks of a rocky start, especially if you can identify and avoid some common pitfalls.
The first of these is that figurative language ages with lightning speed. Metaphors and similes invite the reader to scrutinize comparisons, but as soon as those comparisons are out of date, they become ludicrous.
I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk.– Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Unless you’re writing something that doesn’t need to age well, comparisons to public figures or current technology are risky. Some references can be made more satisfying by the necessity of research, but if you’re relying on a cultural mood or general societal understanding, you may be hanging your imagery on something that future readers just won’t appreciate.
Another pitfall that fells many writers is ignoring the fact that metaphors and similes are mostly used on the conceptual level. When the Brothers Grimm describe Snow White as having, ‘Skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony,’ the description is more about communicating her extreme qualities than painting a literal picture. It’s more important that the reader thinks of Snow’s skin as ‘very white’ as opposed to ‘exactly like snow’ (in fact, Neil Gaiman’s short story ‘Snow, Glass, Apples’ is based on the premise that if you take this description literally, Snow White starts to sound an awful lot like a vampire). In this way, a figure of speech is designed to effectively evoke an intended feeling rather than make an accurate comparison.
If, for example, an author described a character as having ‘eyes as white as bone,’ the intent would be to point out that their eyes are noticeably white, but mostly to tie them to imagery of death and horror. The intent is not for the reader to think about the exact shade of white they’d expect bone to be and to add this to an exacting mental picture.
This becomes an issue when authors decide that figurative language is there to enhance the literal accuracy of description rather than to plant thematic links and establish tone. For example, an author might describe a fictional beast as ‘as large as a 1939 Ford Anglia.’ This might paint a totally accurate picture, but the reader didn’t need that much accuracy, and so (unless you’re deliberately poking fun) there’s nothing to justify the clunky phrasing.
This may sound like a problem you’ll naturally avoid, but when you’re desperate to paint a totally faithful picture, it’s easy to start asking too much of metaphors. Choose your figurative language according to how you want the reader to feel, not what you want them to picture.
Finally, as you shape your metaphors and similes, be sure to ask what the reader understands and what will happen if they’re confused. Metaphors are a great way to nail a point home, but it’s common for a writer who already understands their own point to become so engrossed in an engaging, accurate, unique metaphor that they fail to make a comprehensible point. For the reader who doesn’t yet know what you’re trying to say, an overly showy metaphor isn’t just unclear, it makes it harder to go back and understand the original point, since now they’re trying to match it to imagery they don’t understand.
“There are a lot of rabbits running around claiming to be the very best bunny, but the president hasn’t yet decided which set of fuzzy tails he’ll use,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.– Rachael Bade, Carol D. Leonnig and Josh Dawsey, ‘GOP leaders spar over adding House members to Trump’s impeachment defense team’, The Washington Post
This isn’t just a case of making a point clearly, but of asking how your figurative language could be misread. Fiction allows you to create any kind of reality, which means there’s a lot more potential uncertainty behind anything but the clearest language. If you’re going to employ metaphor successfully, especially in something like genre fiction, you need to assess the parameters of what the reader currently understands. The extract below is from early in a short story which has already included a caterpillar-like robot, published in a collection featuring elves, killer butterflies, shapeshifting aliens, and golden-skinned mutants.
Standing in the street entrance, Edward Ackers listened to the voice. During the last half hour the voice had taken on a carping, nagging whine; sinking almost to inaudibility, it plodded along, mechanically turning out its message of complaint.
“You’re tired,” Ackers said. “Go home. Take a hot bath.”
“No,” the voice said, interrupting its tirade. The locus of the voice was a large illuminated blob on the dark sidewalk, a few yards to Ackers’ right.– Philip K. Dick, ‘The Unreconstructed M’, The Golden Man
So, what is this ‘blob’ creature? It’s just a human. Describing it as a blob is a very basic metaphor, but in a sci-fi story set in an unfamiliar world, the reader isn’t as able to tailor the limits of their assumptions. After the odd, detached description and the unclear metaphor, it’s entirely possible they’ll end this passage thinking that the character is, as described, some kind of sentient, glowing blob.
The risk here isn’t solely that the reader will carry their misunderstanding into the rest of the story. That’s the worst-case scenario, but it’s more common that they’ll be pulled out of the story while they adjust, harming their suspension of disbelief. The person who confusedly thinks the character is a blob isn’t the real loss; the real loss is the much larger group of readers who had to re-read that paragraph to straighten out what was happening and consequently didn’t experience it as fiction. As I said earlier, writing good figurative language is worth the risk, but consider this when you get the urge to indulge in a metaphor or simile just because; is the risk to clarity worth the gain in presentation?
Writing amazing similes and metaphors
If you avoid the pitfalls above and put in some practice, you’ll be on the right track to writing effective similes and metaphors, but let’s end by taking things just a little bit further.
The key to writing truly amazing similes and metaphors is to give the reader something they recognize as true but which they’ve never seen before. The first step here is to always, always, always be specific.
In part 1, I offered the scene where a character is waiting to hear news about the health of their child and says, ‘This is torture.’ That’s a poor metaphor not because it isn’t powerful but because it’s been overdone – it’s cliché. If, on the other hand, the character was previously a prisoner of war and says something like, ‘I never thought I’d feel this way again. I swear, I’m back in Cambodia,’ we can bring new life to the same basic metaphor just by making it specific.
The more instantly the reader understands the sentiment you’re expressing, the more powerful the moment will be, so temper your specificity with accessibility. With the example above, the moment will be more powerful if the reader understands what the character went through during their confinement, but they can be expected to make some accurate assumptions. If this was a fantasy story about a fictional war, the parameters of expectation would be different, and the reader might need more information to really tune into the character’s suffering.
Finally, you can improve your similes and metaphors by always going ‘one floor higher.’ Once you have an image you like, try to get even more specific. Take a recognizable emotional truth and add something to make it unique. The goal is to find a fresh way of saying something that everyone understands.
For example, consider the extract below. The author begins with a solid metaphor – being washed away by sand – but by adding the child, they make the scene realer, decorating it with a little specificity. The metaphor is no longer general because it is implied to happen in a specific time and place, and that makes it all the more striking.
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.– Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
A common refrain from those dealing with grief is shock or discomfort that the rest of the world keeps on turning. W.H. Auden basically owns this sentiment, having set it down so accurately that the poem in question is one of the most popular to read at funerals.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead– W.H. Auden, ‘Stop all the clocks’
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
This sentiment wasn’t cliché when it was written, and it’s still intensely moving, but it’s now the established expression of this emotion, so how do you say the same thing in a unique way? You go one floor higher, finding the details that, again, set this metaphor in a specific time and place – the thing that makes it a personal expression of a universal emotion.
In the extract below, the author accomplishes this not by out-miserabling Auden, but by adding small, humorous touches that bring the moment alive. Porter’s glow-in-the-dark equipment, like Auden’s dog, takes things one floor higher; past the bedrock of real emotion and up to where you find personal emotion.
Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and clamor of an event like this? Where are the strangers going out of their way to help, screaming, flinging bits of emergency glow-in-the-dark equipment at us to try and settle us and save us?
There should be men in helmets speaking a new and dramatic language of crisis. There should be horrible levels of noise, completely foreign and inappropriate for our cosy London flat.
– Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers
A simile is like a metaphor, but a metaphor is not a simile
Metaphors and similes are basic tools that can be enhanced to surprising levels with enough insight and practice. If you’re looking to work on your figurative language, be sure to start by getting comfortable with both similes and metaphors, giving you the variety you need in your work. Once you’ve done that, start working on going one floor higher, finding unique ways to express recognizable ideas.
Accomplish that while prizing clarity and choosing the right moments to try something different and you’ll have truly mastered the use of metaphor and simile. Of course, mastery isn’t the only acceptable state; just being a little more comfortable with these types of figurative language should be your goal for now.
What’s your favorite literary metaphor and/or simile, and what figurative language have you written that fills you with pride? Let me know in the comments, and check out Your Quick And Easy Guide To Theme, Allegory And Symbolism and Why More Authors Should Harness The Power Of Conceit for more great advice on this subject.