Metaphors Are Icing; Similes Are Like Spice

Looking back over some of my blog entries, I see I sometimes sound like quite the expert, a know-it-all who has decided to bestow some of his vast expertise on new writers.  I should make it clear my expertise is really not vast—it’s half vast.

On the subject of metaphors and similes, I have to say I’m not even a novice yet.  I have to force myself to use more of them in my stories.  So this blog entry is written as a set of reminders for me.  You’re welcome to read along if you like.

First of all, Steve, metaphors and similes are very much alike; they’re both methods of comparing one thing to another, it’s just that similes signal their presence with the words “like” or “as.”  Those words announce to the reader a comparison is coming.  Metaphors can sneak up on a reader such that he or she doesn’t realize the comparison has happened until after reading it.  Similes lack that stealth.

Remember, Steve, that readers, nearly all of them being human, possess brains naturally equipped to recognize patterns–the similarities between two things.  They store their memories in interesting places within the brain but always near other analogous things.  Consider the concept of “soft.”  Just thinking about soft conjures up images of feather beds, pillows, baby’s cheeks, puffy dandelions, etc.  All those images and more are stored within the brain, filed with the word “soft.”

So when you’re writing a story, Steve, and you want to describe how soft something is, you can compare it to something else filed under that heading.  Chances are readers will share the same mental picture you’ve conveyed, thus saving, as the saying goes, a thousand words.

It can work as well with concepts less concrete than “soft.”  A person can be described as being “as loving as…” or “as loyal as…” where you can compare these qualities to the standards in your mind filed under those headings.

Two common pitfalls to avoid, Steve, are clichés and mixed metaphors.  Clichés indicate the writer’s laziness, and often fail to convey the image intended due to overuse.  Mixed metaphors are at best jarring to the reader, and at worst, funny (and the reader’s not laughing with you), like the ones listed on this site.

There are some great writers you can learn from, Steve, about similes and metaphors.  There are sites out there like this one where you can read through some of the classic similes.  Be on the lookout for clever comparisons in all the books you read.  Take a moment to analyze each one and figure out why it works—why the author chose those words.  Poetry is often teeming with metaphors due to the compact nature of the medium and the need for each word to pull more of a load than is required in prose.

Steve, you’ve got to strive to use metaphors and similes more in your writing.  They help the reader picture your scenes and characters better.  Metaphors are icing; similes are like spice.  You must make better use of them if you wish to continue being known as–

Poseidon’s Scribe