Category Archives: metaphors

Do you use metaphors? How about similes?

I don’t use metaphors or similes when I write fiction.  I’ve been aware of this for a couple of years, and so made a resolution to incorporate more metaphors and similes into my writing, especially my fiction writing.  But I have had little success.

Now I know why.

When I insert a metaphor or simile into narration, it reminds readers that an author is writing what they are reading.  A metaphor or simile draws readers away from the story line to consider a comparison.  A metaphor or simile interrupts the flow of writing and takes readers out of the story to consider the meaning of or the aptness of the figure of speech.

And I don’t want that.What I want, as an author, is for my readers to become “one” with my story, to find my story so real, so compelling, that they “live” in the story, unaware of the real world around them.  Metaphors and similes force the reader to leave the story—momentarily, true—and enter the real world to think about the figure of speech.  The flow is broken.

Two exceptions exist. One is that it is okay to include a metaphor or simile in either the spoken words of a character or in his or her thoughts.  Once your smile to me was wine, a character could think as she looks across the table to her long-time husband.  Or a mother beset with children’s demands, a ringing phone, and a dog’s whine could say, “My life is like a soap opera.”  In these situations—thinking and speaking—metaphors and similes still interrupt the flow of the story if the reader needs to think about the comparisons.  But they can seem organic if a character uses them.

Another exception is when the figure of speech is a cliché that is readily understood and needs no consideration.  When a character says, “That water is as cold as ice,” or when another character thinks, I smell a rat, we needn’t think about the comparison because we have heard it many times before and readily understand it.

Of course some writers do use metaphors and similes successfully, especially when a story is told in the first person.  If you have read any of Raymond Chandler’s stories about his famous detective, Philip Marlowe, you have encountered hundreds of figures of speech because the character of Marlow thinks in similes and metaphors.  Those stories are told in first person point of view, so the figures of speech form part of the personality of the narrator.

How about you?  Do you use similes and metaphors?  Do you agree with me that these figures of speech interrupt the flow of narration?

Writing metaphors

Metaphors are powerful figures of speech.  For example, take Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  Of the last two identical lines, the first is literal but the second is metaphorical.  The first “And miles to go before I sleep” means just that, a long way to travel before the horse and buggy driver can drop into bed.   But the second “And miles to go before I sleep” means–perhaps–not a literal sleep but the “sleep” of death.  Frost could have ended his poem with, “And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I die,” but how much more eloquent is his repetition of the word “sleep,” a metaphor for death.

EPSON MFP imageReading metaphors requires more of  readers than does reading literal words or even similes.  Readers must make a connection which is inferred but not stated directly.  Yet for their work, readers are rewarded, gaining satisfaction from discovering the meaning of the metaphor.

Metaphors are rarely written by adults and especially not by children.  They need to be taught, and need to be practiced.

Where to begin?  Here are three ways.

  • Suppose a child is writing a story with two or three characters. The child could use ordinary names for his characters, or he could use names as metaphors, the way J. K. Rowling does in her Harry Potter books.  (Malfoy means bad faith; Snape sounds like snake; the “mort” of Voldemort means death.)  A child could create a metaphorical name to reveal something about a character’s nature.  You and the student could brainstorm about a name which indicates bossiness, for example.  It could be a word which means boss (Lord, Lady, King, Rex, Regis, Mayor, Bishop, Majors) or a word which sounds like a word which means boss, even if it is made up (Empor, Captin, Sarge, Leder).
  • Suppose a character is doing something, such as running fast, and the child writes a simile, such as “runs like a cheetah.” Show the child that he could also write that the character “runs on cheetah legs.”  Many similes are easily turned into metaphors.  “as fast as lightning” could be “lightning fast” or “races with lightning steps.”  “Runs as fast as a rocket” could be “blasts on rocket feet.”
  • Ask the child to picture someone’s hands not as hands, but as something else:  scissors, pencils, chopsticks, or hooks.  Now turn that image into a metaphor.  He ate with chopstick fingers.  She arranged her hair with finger combs.  Mom smoothed her dress with finger irons.


Six rules for clear thinking and writing by George Orwell

One excellent yet pithy set of rules for writing well comes from 70 years ago by the British writer, George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm as well as numerous essays.  The rules are part of an essay called “Politics and the English Language” in which he argues that poorly written English results from bad habits of thought.  Get rid of the bad habits and clearer thinking emerges in the mind of the writer and on paper.

His six rules are

  • “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • “Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • “Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”