Metaphors and Similes: You Have to Love Them

Often what separates a good writer from a mediocre writer is the use of metaphors and similes.

Using them shows imagination and creativity. Our favorite comedians are adept at hitting us with a punchline that is usually a strong metaphor or simile.

One thing is used to represent another. 

Some simple common metaphors:

  • The snow is a white blanket.
  • America is a melting pot.
  • Her lovely voice was music to his ears.
  • Life is a rollercoaster.
  • The alligator’s teeth are white daggers.
  • Their home was a prison.
  • His heart is a cold iron.
  • She is a peacock.
  • He is a shining star.
  • Time is money.
  • My teacher is a dragon.
  • Tom’s eyes were ice.
  • The detective’s face was wood as he listened to her story.

The problem with metaphors is that people not well versed in the language may not get the meaning.

Similes use like or as.

(They can also use more than or less than.)

Some simple common similes:

  • (Eat) like a bird
  • (Fight) like cats and dogs
  • (Work) like a dog
  • Like a dream
  • (Soar) like an eagle
  • Like fingernails on a chalkboard
  • Like a fish
  • (Racing) like a frightened rabbit
  • (Have eyes) like a hawk
  • (Eat) like a horse
  • (Sleep) like a log
  • (Sing) like an angel
  • (Act) like an animal

 

  • As big as an elephant
  • As black as coal
  • As blind as a bat
  • As bold as brass
  • As boring as watching paint dry
  • As brave as a lion
  • As bright as a button
  • As busy as a bee
  • As cheap as dirt
  • As clean as a whistle
  • As clear as mud
  • As clear as crystal
  • As American as apple pie

These are simple and common. They are all cliché.

They have become hackneyed.

A more complex cliche that has become hackneyed is: nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Once they become common in usage they are stale, lackluster and bog down a story more than lift it. The phrases and ideas become time worn or overdone. Eventually they lack significance through having been overused; becoming unoriginal and trite.

As writers, it is best to make your own metaphors and similes.

Unless you are particularly talented, it is not easy, but it’s fun. The old has to be replaced with the new. Yet it has to be something that more than a few can relate to. It also has to fit the context.

For example; as red as a rose, would not be a very good description of the color of blood.

I have a three page backlist of original similes and metaphors for certain situations. There are many I could fit to a sentence with a tweak or two. Today I got stuck on one.

I just spent two hours coming up with the perfect sentence using a simile. I know you might think that is a lot of time to spend on one sentence. This is part of why great books can take months into years.

My sentence concerned the word squirm. The context is a kidnapping. Go ahead. Give it a try.

Worms squirm.

Eels squirm.

Politicians squirm when caught in a lie.

She squirmed like _____________________.  (Fill in the blank.)

I’m not going to share my sentence, but I will say that this is the sort of thing I am striving for in this novel.

It is moments like this when you just have to pat yourself on the back and say, “Brilliant.”

 Small triumphs.

19 thoughts on “Metaphors and Similes: You Have to Love Them

  1. What if the phrase makes sense for the character or time period? I’m just thinking also how I’ve only heard the ‘long-tailed cat’ phrase once and it was from Rogue of the X-Men. I’ve used it a few times in conversation and I’ve had to explain it. The only time I didn’t was when I said it in Florida, which makes me think it’s a Southern term. So, would you say that location and character background could give some of the hackneyed phrases a pass for readers?

    Oh yeah, I’ve also heard of America being called a Tossed Salad. Doesn’t sound as good as Melting Pot though.

    • I have heard both tossed salad, (Jesse Jackson said it) and melting pot (Martin Luther King, Jr. said it).

      Metaphors and similes can often be regional. Not everyone is always going to get it when it is original. Some are relative to certain profession or experiences, like hobbies…like jogging or fishing…only some who does will. That is what makes them so challenging to come up with.

      You want to try to reach as large an audience as possible.

      • Think I prefer the MLK one. Tossed salad makes me think of a kid hurling lettuce everywhere . . . I’m not allowed to make salads anymore. 😦

        One fun thing in fantasy is that you can use these similes and metaphors with a twist. For example, ‘as big as an ogre’ or ‘like a long-tailed kobold in a room full of dancing goblins’.

  2. Some people will never get them no matter what. My wife was talking about how our daughter has gained a little weight. She said she was cuter at our daughter’s age.

    I told her that stuff really doesn’t matter all that much and she responded with how guys like hot girls.

    I said, “Sure all guys like Ferraris, but when you need a tractor it’s a poor substitute.” For some reason I’m in trouble now.

  3. Creative metaphors and similes are very entertaining for me. I look for and recognize them. Often they will keep me reading a book I would otherwise cast aside if I did not like it. I often highlight them with yellow marker or write them in blank end pages.

    • I agree, and I mark them down also. Not to reuse them, because that makes them cliche at times, but to help give me guidance on how to create them. Another nifty trick is to make a list of things that are very similar or very different and try to use them in a sentence.

      I could see where they would be very useful to you in your cartoons.

      The trick is to be clever, but not alienate the audience.

  4. She squirmed like a novelist hung on a metaphor?
    How ’bout Chuck Berry’s “pushing through the crowd tryin to get to where she’s at. I was campaign, shouting like a Southern diplomat”?

  5. Metaphors are tricky. Not enough use of them, and our work can seem stale. Overuse them, and we risk writing that comes off as too forced. I remember reading that another reason metaphors and similes are tricky is because we have to be careful to avoid bad or cheesy ones. Editors often use a metaphor from the book to show an example of the author’s writing. This can be used to show good OR bad writing. We never want to experience the latter and have our bad metaphor mocked in the review. Ouch. 🙂

    • You are very correct in that they must be used judiciously else they come across as hammy or schmaltzy.

      For most writing, a few clever similes scattered throughout a novel work well. Sometimes, though, it might just be one exceptionally witty character that throws them around.

      The crime novels my husband enjoys most are riddled with them. But mine are primarily focused on one character.

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