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.

Rachel Craft
Rachel Craft writes speculative fiction for all ages, mostly under her pen name Rachel Delaney. Her short stories have appeared in Cricket magazine and the RMFW anthology Found, and she's working on a middle grade novel. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she works as an engineer and leads a local critique group. You can find her on Twitter @RDCwrites.

4 thoughts on “The Subtle Art of Similes and Metaphors

  1. I think similes should be used like a condiment or a spice — sparingly. I believe the comment by Patricia Stoltey is a good example of overwhelming scenery.

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