A to Z Challenge 2013

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Thursday Thoughts - Metaphors and Similes

I'm trying to get some regular posts going here, hence the "Thursday Thoughts" name. Today I'd like to work my way through the idea of when to use metaphors, when to use similes, and what makes them effective. I need to put out the disclaimer however, that I am not classically trained in English literature. I am hopefully not going to be spouting nonsense, but feel free to correct any obvious mistakes.

Simile construction consists of using the word 'like' when comparing two things. An example would be "The tension cut like a knife." While this particular example is fairly cliche, it works well enough to explain how to use a simile. A metaphor however, is a comparison where you do not use the word 'like'. An example of this would be "His car was a bullet, flying down the highway with no regard for obstacles." The difference between the two is this: When using simile, an author is comparing the two concepts or objects side by side. When using metaphor however, one object or concept is being completely overlaid by another, becoming that object figuratively.

The rule-of-thumb is to avoid similes whenever possible. The idea is that a metaphor is much stronger in a literary sense than a simile. It conveys the comparison with greater emphasis, particularly because you are replacing part or all of the original object with a new figurative description. You are adding to things, enhancing them in a way. Similes are straight comparison, and most of the time they impact the reader less. Consider the following example:

"Her hair was like an unkempt haystack."


"Her hair was an unkempt haystack."

While the change is very subtle, the second example doesn't imply that her hair was a haystack; it states it emphatically. There is no possibility that the reader will mistake what her hair looks like, because the sentence describes it in crisp, clear words. This is what we want as authors, after all. We want our readers to completely visualize the story, see it through our eyes in all its splendor.

So when should you use a simile? This is a much harder question for me to answer. The entire time I've been writing this post, I've been trying to come up with a good reason. The only one that comes to mind is if using a simile is necessary in order to stay true to the story. For example, if someone is speaking, describing something, and they don't usually talk in metaphors (i.e. they aren't as intelligent, aren't as verbally proficient, etc), then a simile is necessary. You can even use this idea if the person is just thinking about things, since we often think using the same words we speak in. Other than that, I would advise using a well-written metaphor whenever possible instead of a simile.

So have I missed anything here? Are there other instances you can think of where a simile would be appropriate?


Warren Baldwin said...

Hi, I linked here from Suzanne's blog.

Good ideas about metaphor's and similies. Metaphor's are stronger.

I wonder if a time to use a similie would be if the metaphor might be too strong, or might imply disrespect? Suppose you are talking about a boss, community leader, etc. Instead of saying, "He is a brute," it might be more respectful, and be taken less offensively, if you said, "He is like a brute at times." Just wondering based on the question you posed. wb

Anita said...

If there's more than one simile per book, I notice it...and not in a good way.

Rebecca Woodhead said...

Hi Eric,

This is a great thinking-point. I hope I have a point to add to the discussion. If it helps, take it on board but if not then feel free to cast it aside like an old sock.

I think it takes a degree of courage to use a metaphor and a great metaphor is a really powerful thing but I'm not sure I agree totally with that 'rule of thumb' on similes. Part of that is because I'm not a huge fan of 'rules of thumb' generally unless they're self imposed (it could be a really good exercise to force yourself not to use simile just to see how great your metaphors come out for example.) The main reason I think this rule is a bit off though is because I've seen so many beautiful similes and would hate a rule to come in and remove from our language the joy of passages that contain them.

This wonderful simile that Jamie Ford uses in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an example:

'...deep down there was an Ethel-shaped hole in Henry's life, and without her, all he felt was the draft of loneliness, cold and sharp, the years slipping away LIKE blood from a wound that never heals.'

It's so fabulous and emotive and one of the most effective descriptions I have read in a long time. If it had been a metaphor, it would have been too brutal.

Another example is:

'...the mind of the thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is LIKE a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.' - Oscar Wilde - from The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Another recent literary example is:

'...Eyes wide set, golden brown LIKE syrup...' Marina Lewycka - A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

Thanks for writing this post. I will certainly think about it while I'm editing my novel as I think there needs to be a good blend of both and I'd hate to think I've used simile at the expense of a real belter of a metaphor. A combination of the two can be magical. Jamie's above contains both (loneliness isn't LIKE a draft) but I'm also fond of this example about the legendary romantic hero/anti-hero Heathcliff:

'Do you mark those two lines between your eyes, and those thick brows...and that couple of BLACK FIENDS, so deeply buried, who never OPEN THEIR WINDOWS BOLDLY, but lurk glinting under them, LIKE devil's spies?' That's what I'm talking about Emily Bronte - you go girl!

Awesome blog BTW, keep it up, and thanks for all your contributions over on my blog. Always welcome :)


Robyn said...

What a great post. As for similes, I don't use them at all. It's never come up in my writing. Metaphors either.In my novel, anyway. Though, I have used metaphors that a young child could understand in one of my picture books. This post got me to thinking. And that's always good. Very nice post. Thanks, and thanks for stopping over at my blog. :)

Anonymous said...

Eric - your blog is coming along very well. Congratulations on that. Your post is very well presented and thought provoking. In my opinion similes and metaphors can take away from the showing part of writing; however, depending on your character can be used in dialogue.

Roderckdhu said...

I think it is more of a question of "when" to use a simile or a metaphor. A good general rule of thumb for both is do not use them when they distract from the object of the writing. Beyond that, I might suggest that a well used simile keeps the attention on the subject, while a metaphor draws attention to the metaphor. Very broadly, I would say dodge them both.

Rebecca Woodhead said...

Good point actually Brian.

They probably shouldn't be used if they slow down the action. I love Eric's "His car was a bullet, flying down the highway with no regard for obstacles" though as that cuts out so much wordiness and would actually speed up the action.

Travis Erwin said...

I thing similes work well in humor pieces just because you can make them a bit more absurd without losing the reader.

Lady Glamis said...

Awesome post, Eric! You have some great points and thoughts. I think similes have their place for sure, but need to be used effectively. Thrown all over the place makes things, well, bad. I've done it way too many times.

Scott did a post on similes and metaphors over on The Literary Lab if you missed it. There's a link on my blog. I'm not sure if you've been over there or not? Anyway, thanks for this great information! I'm always excited about posts on craft. :)

beth said...

When should you use a metaphor or simile?

Eh, whenever you feel like it.

There are no rules, not to something like that.

Just use your good judgment and make the words fit the story in a beautifully crafted way.

ElanaJ said...

I like using similes more. *hides* Because sometimes I think it's ridiculous to say that her hair was a haystack. (Not picking on you at all.) I mean, it's NOT a haystack, it's LIKE a haystack, yanno? *shrugs* I don't like reading tons of them in books, but they don't bother me if they're well sprinkled throughout in strategic and appropriate places.

Great post!

Eric said...

Thank you all for joining in on the discussion. I think it's safe to say that everyone has their own opinion as to when it's appropriate (or useful). As long as it fulfills your vision of what the story should be, go ahead and use metaphors, similes, or neither. This has been a fun adventure to walk through, so I appreciate everyone's input. I'll have to do something like this more often.

Rebecca Woodhead said...

congrats on the mention on new author - should be quite a few interested writers over here for a while. I've a feeling you won't be able to put this to bed for a few days yet! Well done Eric.

Need to talk to you about something writerly but don't have your email. Will you send it through Brian or DM me on Twitter?

Ta muchly.