The 3 Must-Know Rules for Using Metaphors and Similes

I love using metaphors. I admit it. I love the paradox that sometimes the best way to evoke the essence of something is to describe something else. I love finding that perfect comparison between two seemingly incomparable subjects and thereby shedding new light on one or both subjects. I love the poetry of speaking metaphorically, the impossible personification of ideas, feelings, things, and places. Unfortunately, however (and perhaps a bit surprisingly), the metaphor and its cousin the simile can be tricky to master.

The perfect metaphor has the power to zap clarity and freshness into any description and to make what is ordinary suddenly unique. It’s this heady experience that tempts most of us into that wild waltz of synthetic similitude. But don’t be fooled: with all that power comes a lot of responsibility. Using metaphors incorrectly can not only brand your writing as that of a rank amateur, they will also rip your readers right out of your story. This is not just a pitfall of the inexperienced; even veteran authors like Jodi Picoult misstep on occasion. In her book My Sister’s Keeper, her description of a roast beef dinner as a newborn baby curled up on the platter, not only made me gag, it also popped my suspension-of-disbelief bubble and destroyed the verisimilitude of her scene.

Using Metaphors: This Is How It’s Done, Folks!

Before I go any further with the caveats of Master Metaphor and Madame Simile, let me share some examples of metaphors in marvelous action. These are the kind of metaphors that bring scenes to life and infuse color and vivacity into word pictures. Unfortunately, as I collected these gems over the years, I neglected to note the sources, so if you’re reading along and find something you’ve written, please accept my adulation of your brilliance and forgive me for not giving due credit.

  • Ice-chip stars.
  • A foggy night like moist black velvet.
  • Snow falling in great white blossoms.
  • The air conditioning smelled like a wet sheepdog.
  • A bird of prey suspended like a drifting flake of copper.
  • A chuckle like a drain.
  • Stars like crushed diamonds.
  • Eyes like pieces of sky.
  • The moon was a chip of bone in the sky.
  • The mists like layers of diaphanous scarves.
  • “the sun hung in the sky like a pale coin”
  • Feminine calligraphy, like a soft whisper.
  • Thread-like pulse.
  • Breathing the heavy air felt like sucking on cotton.
  • Tasted like morbid vinegar.
  • Violet dusk like airy wine.

Metaphors and Similes: What’s the Difference?

Three guidelines, in particular, should come into play when considering whether or not to include a metaphor or simile in your writing. But first, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let me clarify a few terms. The metaphor directly describes unrelated objects (e.g. “my office carpet is a blue sea.”) The simile indirectly describes unrelated objects, via words such as “like” and “as” (e.g. “my office looks like a blue sea.”) I.A. Richards, in his book The Philosophy of Rhetoric, divided the metaphor into two parts, the vehicle and the tenor. Put simply, the tenor is the subject being described and the vehicle is the object doing the describing by way of comparison (e.g., in “you are my sunshine,” you is the tenor and sunshine is the vehicle.)

The Three Guidelines for Using Metaphors

1. Make sure it rings true.

You want the attention placed on the tenor, not the vehicle. Otherwise, metaphors can spiral into drawn-out, melodramatic descriptions that actually take the attention away from what you’re really trying to describe. Consider, for example: “The woman’s mink stole slithered around her neck like hairy boa constrictor angry at being stolen from its hot and humid home in darkest South America.” Which one are you getting a better picture of—the stole or the snake? You also have to make sure you choose the right vehicle to accurately convey what you’re trying to say about your tenor. Unless you really want to imply that a mink stole somehow looks like a boa constrictor, the snake example above is probably not a good choice. Readers are likely to wind up visualizing a woman with a green snake wrapped around the décolletage of her evening gown.

2. Avoid metaphors that weaken your description.

Not all metaphors are as scintillating as those in the list above. Some can, in fact, rob the vitality right out of your descriptions. Take a look at this line from David Baldacci’s The Winner: “Her skin seemed to be humming against her bones, as though a million bees had plunged into her body.” The metaphor here is actually pretty good. A million bees plunging into someone’s body does give us a vibrant picture. Unfortunately, however, in this instance, the metaphor actually takes away from the vitality of Baldacci’s verb choice. Without the metaphor, the sentence, and the descriptive intent behind it, steps out in a much more lively—and much more accessible—fashion: “Her skin seemed to be humming against her bones.” Or better yet: “Her skin hummed against her bones.”

3. Use sparingly.

Behold the DawnToo many metaphors in a row, no matter how brilliant, will always sap the immediacy out of prose. During one of my early edits of my Crusade novel Behold the Dawn, I ran across the following passage in the climax: “He hefted the sword like a pole-ax and swung almost before Hugh realized he had gotten free. The blade’s honed edge caught bone just beneath the shoulder joint and cleaved through like a galleon in water.” By themselves, I think both “hefted the sword like a pole-ax” and “cleaved through like a galleon in water” work pretty well. But side-by-side in subsequent paragraphs, they rob each other of their strengths. With these guidelines in mind, go hit the keyboard and have a blast with this delightful tool of prose. And metaphors be with you! (Sorry, couldn’t resist…)

Tell me your opinion: Do you like using metaphors in your prose? Why or why not?

3 must-know rules for using metaphors

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Metaphors be with you?! *Wince* 😀

    Great lesson, though!

  2. Well, in my defense, I can admit such an awful pun was not of my own making. I stole it from a bumper sticker.

  3. Great lesson and I learned a new word today; “verisimilitude”. Now to go put my new knowledge to work: The verisimilitude of her confession swept over me like an icy Nordic wave. :>)

  4. LOL Sounds like a winner!

  5. “Metaphors be with you.” Funny! I’ll have to remember that one.

  6. Oh, goody! Somebody besides me thought it was funny!

  7. Haha, yes, may them be with you. It was funny!

    You are very right, methaphors are a wonderful, and a great tool but not always brilliant and often misplaced.

    I think your guidelines have been very accurate.

    You are right about the snake: I don´t even remember what was the woman wearing! “Snake” is too much of a strong image, not to mention a boa constrictor…

    Thanks for another great post!

    M.

  8. Metaphors are one of those things that are either wonderful or horrible – there’s rarely any middle ground. So, when in doubt, we’re usually better off deleting them.

  9. Uh-huh. When in doubt, better hold on! 🙂

    It is true that there is rarely middel ground.

    M.

  10. thomas h cullen says

    With a mere four thousand five hundred word quantity, suffice to say The Representative is of hardly much room for metaphor:

    It does however still feature enough witty lines of literature.

    (Outstanding lines, actually).

    My own disposition would be to use metaphors only when confidently well-placed; most of the time I’d suppress whatever inclination I felt to employ one.

    (Yet another fine post Katie)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a good rule of thumb. When in doubt, cut the metaphor out.

      • thomas h cullen says

        It must feel a bit awkward – replying to a comment on a post over five years old.

        (It’s only just now I’ve noted the publication date)

        Time’s much longer than linguistics have us think.

        Back to metaphors: nice rhyme!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yep, this is an oldie. I repost at old link once a week.

          • thomas h cullen says

            It’s against our instinct, to keep using something after a certain amount of time has stretched – but not our intelligence of course.

            Time is power.

  11. Great post, K.M.! It was shared in one of our Facebook writing groups today, so you might see some new comments (like this one) despite its original post date.

    I prefer to put metaphors and similes in the mouths of my characters rather than in the narrative, and only then if the expressions are relevant to the conversation. Unless a character is given to non sequiturs, of course; then I’ll let the metaphors fly. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s always fun when characters have unique ways of speaking. If nothing else, it gives us a fun excuse to stretch our vocabularies.

  12. RobinTVale (darkocean) says

    I like a good metaphor now and then along with similes, but when editing a chapter if it has too many I start to get annoyed at them, usually, I copy paste most of them and save for later. They don’t come to me as easily as they do with other writers (that I’ve seen, most I’ve read on the Wattpad site are stuffed full of them. God forbid, I point out that using too many is not so great… Lolz.)

    The metaphors… trying to make them on purpose is exhausting. Still, there’s several in the book and am going to check it all again and make sure there aren’t any chapters that are saturated with them. My main pov likes things simple and to the point and abstract metaphors aren’t. ^_~

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