The Subtle Art of Similes and Metaphors

We’ve all read them—those little would-be jewels of description that make us pause, furrow our brow, and say “Huh?” We’ve all been guilty of them, too, especially in the early stages of our writing careers.

They’re bad similes and metaphors, and they stick out from a manuscript like a sore thumb—but it can be difficult to pinpoint why they aren’t working. In this post, let me count the ways in which a well-meaning simile or metaphor can turn ugly. To help you follow along, I’ve taken some cringe-worthy examples from my own first novel (the one that’s been living in a drawer for 10 years—and you’ll see why).

 

It’s clichéd. This goes without saying, but it’s so common in similes and metaphors that I had to mention it. Resist the urge to take this easy, and often eye-roll-inducing, route.

Example: The creature’s face was like something out of a nightmare.

Not only is this a cliché, it doesn’t tell the reader anything new. It suggests the creature is scary-looking, but it doesn’t provide any specifics to help the reader envision it.

 

It’s unnecessary. If the action it’s describing is straightforward, the comparison may not enhance the reader’s understanding. Adding a simile or metaphor where it isn’t needed takes up valuable word space and makes the writing feel like it’s trying too hard.

Example: Her mouth fell open like a trapdoor.

This simile doesn’t work for a number of reasons, but really, do we need a simile at all? We all know what someone looks like when their mouth falls open in surprise; adding a comparison doesn’t enhance the story in any way.

 

The items being compared are too similar. Using a simile or metaphor to compare two nearly identical items doesn’t enhance the reader’s understanding, and ends up feeling redundant rather than illuminating.

Example: He swung his fist like an enormous club.

Our forearms are shaped like clubs, and in hand-to-hand combat, we use them essentially like clubs. Thus, this simile is almost as useless as “He swung his arm like an enormous…arm.”

 

The items being compared are too different. Although the two parts of a comparison must be fundamentally different in order to enhance the reader’s understanding, they must also be similar enough for the reader’s mind to connect them smoothly. If they’re too different, the reader will be left slack-jawed and confused.

Example: The melody floated through the air like a great butterfly.

Butterflies don’t make noise, and we generally associate them with visual rather than auditory beauty. Melody engages our sense of hearing while butterfly engages our sense of sight, causing this off-key insect to crash and burn.

 

It doesn’t suit the tone or voice. Even the best similes and metaphors can pull readers out of the story if they don’t mesh with their surroundings. If you’re writing a scene with a spooky, dark tone, you don’t want a simile that feels too lighthearted or comical. Similarly, if your protagonist has no sense of humor, a funny simile won’t feel authentic to his voice.

 

It’s crowded by other similes and metaphors. I once read a manuscript where the writer incorporated several similes per page; some paragraphs even had one per sentence. My brain felt like it might short-circuit trying to envision one comparison after another, with no breaks in between. Plus, the narrative dragged because I kept having to pause and think about the next simile.

Example: Her eyes shone in the moonlight like glass marbles. He stretched his two fingers and pulled her eyelids gently down over them, like shades drawn one last time over two windows on the world.

This one kills multiple birds with one stone. Besides having two similes in as many sentences, it compares eyes to windows on the world, which is a cliché. Plus, the comparison to something as mundane as window blinds doesn’t fit with the tone of this scene, in which a main character has died.

 

It’s too difficult to convey. Say you get a great idea for a simile or metaphor. The comparison is spot-on! The imagery is stunning! It’s rich with thematic symbolism! But if you can’t find the right words to convey it to the reader, it won’t work.

Example: Their faces were like something carved out of molten lava, similar to those of men but warped, misshapen, with eyes like burning embers and gaping black holes for mouths.

There’s a lot to digest in this one sentence—molten lava faces, burning ember eyes, black hole mouths—making it too convoluted for easy reading. In many cases, it’s just a matter of trimming the fat and rearranging the words until it works. But if you can’t get the idea across without a run-on sentence, multiple clauses, and a pair of parentheses, don’t force it. Keep brainstorming until you find a comparison that’s more conducive to the written word.

 

These are some of the most common pitfalls when it comes to crafting similes and metaphors. Avoid them, and you’ll be well on your way to similes that sparkle and metaphors that mesmerize.

All Hail Conan! (And Buy The Book)

I’m here today with a handy tip for the season of the gift.

Order a copy of Conan the Grammarian, Practical Guidelines on Grammar and Craft for Fiction Writers.

A mere $10.

(Actually, $9.95.)

And then give it to a writer friend for Christmas or your holiday of choice. Birthdays would work, too.

Boom, done.

Does the mere mention of the word ‘grammar’ force you to make a face like you’re eating cold undercooked lima beans? Or pickled beets?

Think again.

This book about grammar is (dare I say it?) refreshing.

Inspiring.

And very (very) funny.

cover-conanWritten by former RMFW president Susan Mackay Smith, Conan the Grammarian is a handy, engaging book that will linger around your desk or writing nook for many years.

The book is a distillation of Conan’s columns in the monthly RMFW newsletter. But everything has been re-written and beautifully organized. And, in terms of production values, Susan Mackay Smith shows all independent publishers out there that a self-produced book can look as sharp and feel as professional as anything coming out of New York City.

Conan claims grammatical errors are “unforgiveable” and, of course, this book goes out and proves that very fact. I didn’t spot one typo. On top of all that, the interior layout makes digesting this volume a snap. (Bibliography, glossary, and index, too.)

Yes, there’s a lot here about grammar. But focus on the second half of the title – practical guidelines and grammar and craft for fiction writers. Every lesson in grammar and usage is written with an eye on the fiction writers’ needs. Smith is writing this for you, the fiction writer.

The “Pets and Peeves” section might be worth the $10 alone (especially if you are about to submit to an agent or send a manuscript to an editor).

Same with “Toward More Colorful Writing.” This section will give you a boost and also give you a few issues to ponder as you edit. It’s a snappy checklist for self-improvement. This is “Perfect Abs in Twenty Minutes A Day” and, this time, it works.

I devoured Conan the Grammarian with a smile on my face and a pen handy to ink-up the pages with underlines at key passages and stars in the margins.

Do any of these sound useful? “Narrative & Description; Showing vs. Telling.” “Voice.” “Action.” “Clichés of Characterization.” “The Hated Revision.” Twenty-seven sub-chapters in all, you can do the math. The reading is brisk and the points are efficiently made. (Having judged Colorado Gold and other writing contests for years, Susan Mackay Smith knows when the brain starts to hurt or the eyes glaze over.) When I was finished, I felt as if I had a new, higher bar to reach. I felt like a better writer.

Conan wants the ideas and the story in your head to reach the reader in clear, efficient and powerful fashion. You may think you know what you are trying to say, but is the story in your head making the journey to your reader's imagination in the most effective way possible? The most clear?

Conan may not be cuddly, but he will set you straight.

Just $10!

Actually, $9.95.

(Get two; one for you and one for a writer pal.)

Order on Amazon here.