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.

Yada Yada Yada: Give Your Characters Distinct Voices

Just like real people, your characters have unique personalities, backgrounds, and worldviews—they should also have unique voices. Newbie authors often miss this lesson, and as a result, all 15 characters in their novel end up sounding exactly like the author. Here’s how I took my writing to the next level by giving my characters their own distinct voices.

There are two layers behind character voice: how they speak, and why they speak that way. Here are a few examples:

How                                                  Why

Big vocabulary                                 Insecure, trying to impress

Big vocabulary                                 Highly educated

Longwinded                                     Used to work as a teacher or lecturer

Longwinded                                     Arrogant

Blunt                                                  Doesn’t care about others’ feelings

Blunt                                                  Comes from a country where directness is valued

Loud voice                                        Lives with a hard-of-hearing relative

Loud voice                                        Attention-seeking

Notice, from the list above, that each how has multiple why possibilities. Also note that some of the whys on this list are personality traits (such as insecurity and arrogance), while others are related to the character’s environment (such as occupation and hometown).

Your job is to first understand your character’s whys, from both personality and environment perspectives. There are many factors to consider: character traits, education, upbringing, location, sense of humor, political and religious views, and overall attitude toward the world. Are they a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type of person? A leader or a follower? What are they afraid or superstitious of? Do they appreciate sarcasm, puns, or black humor? What kind of local slang or colloquialisms might they be exposed to? What job or hobbies do they have? Are they timid, assertive, or brash? Self-confident or insecure? How old are they, and how emotionally mature?

Next, determine how these whys inform how the character speaks. This means vocabulary, grammar, sentence length and structure, directness and subtext, just to name a few. This also includes verbal tics, similes and metaphors, and references to history, pop culture, etc. For instance, a college professor will likely have a wider vocabulary than a high-school dropout. Someone who studied abroad in France might exclaim “Mon Dieu!” while someone who grew up in Alabama might say “Criminy!” A professional engineer may use words like “delta” and “deviation,” while a hobbyist gardener may make analogies to roots, leaves, and flowers.

Then make a list of each character’s key hows and whys. Your lists might look like this:

Allison                                                                           Xweebob

12-year-old girl from New Jersey                               Middle-aged alien from Neptune

Hates school, but loves athletics and gym               Expensive education, has traveled extensively

Uses lots of slang, sentence fragments                    Speaks more formally, full sentences, big words

Makes references to sports                                        Makes references to home planet

Sarcastic sense of humor                                            Doesn’t understand Earth humor

Once you have a rough list for each of your important characters, do a round of editing just for dialogue. Print out your manuscript and skim through the whole thing, highlighting each character’s dialogue in a different color (you can do this digitally, but I much prefer doing it by hand). Then go back to page one, and read through only one color of dialogue. You’ll notice immediately if that character is repeating himself, saying things that don’t fit his voice, or using a verbal tic too often. Make edits as needed, then go back to page one and start reading through the next color. It’s time-consuming but well worth it.

And remember, crafting distinct voices doesn't mean slathering on the dialect or slang. For instance:

Character A: “Well, hawney, sun’s a-settin’, so yew’d better git on down the road thurr.”

Character B: “Croikey! Is it dusk a’ready, mate? Oi’d better get outta here ‘fore Oi get eaten boi a croc!”

Character C: “Dude, I’ve never seen, like, a real crocodile. That would be, like, super intense, like, you know?”

For one thing, no reader wants to wade through this jungle of phonetics. For another, this is so heavy-handed that the characters come across as stereotypes rather than real people. The art of good character voices is much subtler. Here’s a better example:

Character A: “Gettin’ dark out there. You better get on home.”

Character B: “You’re right, mate. Hope the crocs aren’t out tonight.”

Character C: “I’ve never seen a crocodile—you know, a real one.”

See how these lines give a flavor of the characters behind them, without choking readers with dialect?

As with dialect, verbal tics and pet phrases will add depth to your dialogue, but be careful not to overuse them. If a character says “I dunno” or “Holy crap!” every other paragraph, readers will notice—and not in a good way. Same goes for references, analogies, and metaphors. As with anything, moderation is key.

Hopefully, this gives you a good starting point for your own character voices. Now dive into that story and start talking!