Metaphor and Simile
The metaphor, and its close friend the simile, are commonly used figures of speech. The term metaphor came from the Greek word metaphora, which means “carrying from one place to another.” So in a metaphor, the meaning is carried over from one term to another. In other words, something is described in terms of something else. For example, “the beach is a cream-colored scarf.” A simile, on the other hand, is like a very brief analogy, where the two terms are compared, instead of the one term's meaning being carried over to the other. For example, “the beach is like a cream-colored scarf.” You can easily recognize a simile because each one uses like or as to make the comparison.
Metaphors Illuminate Meaning
Metaphors paint particularly vivid pictures because they indirectly compare two very dissimilar things. By using effective and unusual metaphors, writers can intensify as well as stretch their images and ask readers to think about their ideas in new ways. Well-crafted metaphors can also add zing to your writing.
Metaphors are used to describe people, places, things, and actions. You might say the taxi driver in front of the airport bulldozed his way through the crowd to claim you as a passenger. The image of a powerful, ground-chomping bulldozer intensifies the picture of a man forcing his way through a crowd. To describe a bad guy who's extorting a victim in your mystery, you might refer to him as a scraggly haired python. Pythons, of course, don't have hair, but by describing a scruffy-looking mobster as a snake that squeezes and crushes its prey, you give readers another way of thinking about your villain. Using metaphors, you can call your childhood home an altar to the saint of political correctness, or M&M's a rainbow for your mouth. Metaphors can be constructed with incredibly dissimilar objects, as long as one gives deeper meaning to the other.
Get to the Point with a Metaphor
Metaphors can also help you to eliminate unnecessary or unwanted words from your writing. You could take paragraphs of valuable space describing a setting: well-dressed people sitting along the shore of a river, the trees a swirl of bright green, the sunny, relaxed mood of the moment. Or just use a metaphor — “it was a Seurat painting come to the shores of the Allegheny.” With a metaphor, you paint a vivid picture with just a few words.
Exercise your imagination by creating some unusual metaphors. Make two lists of very different things, then compare something in one list to something in the other. Be open and playful, and try to look at the items, actions, people — whatever you're comparing — in new ways.
When you're writing, be it fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, effective metaphors will probably just come to mind. Don't try to force them; though powerful metaphors do enrich writing, you don't need a huge number of them in every piece you write. Forced metaphors will probably come off as forced and will distract more than they enlighten. Better to be open to compelling metaphors, but let them develop naturally and only when appropriate.
Don't use what author Janet Burroway calls “dead metaphors” — comparisons that have been used so often that they no longer have any effect. “My love is a rose,” “the eyes are the windows of the soul,” and “the world is a stage” have been heard so often that we don't even notice the metaphor, let alone gain insight from it. Tired, stale metaphors will add nothing to your work, but lively, fresh ones will add a great deal.
Still another “don't”: Don't mix your metaphors. That means don't compare one thing to two or more different things. For example, “The cinder blocks of his hate became a tornado of rage” is a badly mixed metaphor. Cinder blocks describe hate as a heavy, powerful, building force; also calling hate a tornado confuses the image and sends it in a different direction. The best metaphors communicate an idea simply and clearly and create one strong image at a time.
When constructing similes and metaphors for children's books, be sure to make comparisons that children will understand. Well-crafted comparisons will help make abstract concepts concrete and develop children's ability to analyze and associate. Freshly worded comparisons will also encourage children's love of language.
Simile Is Like a Metaphor
Like metaphors, similes clarify and enhance images by comparing one thing or action or idea to another, dissimilar one. Similes can also heighten and intensify readers' understanding of what the author is trying to accomplish by asking them to slow down and make connections. Like metaphors, similes can paint a concrete image of an abstract idea.
In order to be effective, similes should not only enlighten but also surprise. Tired, overused similes — sweating like a pig, as white as a ghost, as cold as ice, night fell like a curtain — do little to add color or clarity to a word painting. When you create similes, be sure to construct them in fresh, imaginative terms.
Like powerful metaphors, powerful similes work their magic by creating images with details of sound, sight, taste, smell, and touch. Shakespeare was the master of the simile, but modern pros know how to use this figure of speech to achieve powerful results as well. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon constructs brilliant, sensory similes in his 1995 novel Wonder Boys, such as this one: “The whiskey tasted like bear steaks and river mud and the flesh of an oak tree.” You've probably never tasted any of these three things, but you immediately know what Chabon is saying: There was an intense smokiness and earthiness — life — in that swallow.
Another of his compelling similes paints a picture with both sight and sound: “The top [of the car] was down and I listened to the hiss of the wheels against the street, the flow of wind over the car, the sound of Stan Getz blowing faintly from the speakers and trailing out into the air behind us like a pearly strand of bubbles from a pipe.” The language isn't flowery, it's simple and straightforward, and we connect with the image quickly and hear the music floating by.
When should I use a simile?
There are no rules to follow, but you may want to consider inserting similes if your writing seems a little plain or unexciting. Similes can add vigor to your words while they give insight to your readers.
A simile (and a metaphor) can be constructed in the form of a conceit. This term began life centuries ago as a synonym for thought or concept, and now has come to mean an extended figurative device used to delight or inform through its witty or unusual comparison. The understanding and pleasure readers receive from a conceit is more intellectual than sensory because the two things that are compared are wildly different. It's usually not easy for the reader to make the connection, and so the author must explain it in order for the conceit to make its point; when the connection is made, a little light bulb clicks on.
Conceits are often used in poetry, but they can add wit or offer a very fresh way of looking at things in fiction and nonfiction as well. The poet John Donne used them often in his work; in a “verse letter” to a beloved friend, he compared receiving a letter from the friend to alms to show the importance of his friend's affection:
And now thy Almes is given, thy letter is read,
The body risen againe, the which was dead,
And thy poore starveling bountifully fed.
Centuries later, novelist Tom Robbins used the conceit in a more humorous way: He compared juggling to writing on a typewriter, to emphasize the difficulty and precariousness of being an author:
My old typewriter was named Olivetti. I know an extraordinary juggler named Olivetti. No relation. There is, however, a similarity between juggling and composing on my typewriter. The trick is, when you spill something, make it look like part of the act.
Creating a conceit can give you a chance to come up with truly inventive comparisons to enrich your writing: love and a porch (both are home to human interaction, both are a place where most people would like to spend time, both can be walked all over); time and a termite (time eats away at life, a termite eats away at your home); and whatever else your creativity cooks up.