Metaphors and similes are some of the most commonly used (and abused) figures of speech. When used well, a metaphor or simile can elucidate difficult concepts, spice up prose when its descriptions of certain aspects are too repetitious, and prevent a work from being tedious (although if your work has all of those problems you may need significantly more than a nice figure of speech to fix it). However, when a metaphor or simile is used poorly (and it isn’t done for comedic effect as in deliberately mixed metaphors) it can confuse and distract the reader, as well as make the prose laughable when it wasn’t supposed to be. Messy metaphors and silly similes also really drive me up the wall (not quite all the way to the cornice, though) so here’s a brief rant on all the things people who use metaphors and similes in their work really need to know.
1. They aren’t the same thing. No, really, they aren’t. Metaphors use one thing in place of another – as if it were that other – while similes compare two things. The connecting words are the giveaway of a simile. This isn’t an arbitrary or recent differentiation, either; metaphor comes from the Ancient Greek metaphora meaning a transfer, while simile comes from the Latin simile (neuter similis) meaning a like thing or a comparison. In the first case, the metaphor, the identity of one thing is transferred to another (the political situation has the identity of a ship transferred to it when we say that we “don’t want to rock the boat”). In the second, the simile, the first item keeps its own identity and is explicitly likened to the second (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”).
This is an important differentiation because while some things can work in both a metaphor and a simile, many things cannot. For instance:
“He had hair as black as a raven’s wing” OR “He was raven-haired”. Both are cliché, but both work. People will groan in dismay no matter which you use, but only a small number of literal-minded nitpickers will be distracted from your writing by the fact that ravens aren’t the best choice for comparison to black hair (in the former case) and someone with a raven for hair has serious medical issues (in the later).
But imagine what would happen if you tried to use some other similes as metaphors: “I’m as happy as a pig in mud sounds” cliché but normal. However if you were instead to say “I’m a pig in mud” people would start to seriously doubt your mental stability.
The metaphorical “red herring” is perfectly normal in mysteries, and is believed to have an etymological history which makes it a sensible term for a false lead (long story short: smoked herring would turn red and was used to throw bloodhounds off the sent by criminals on the run), but it would sound strange to say that “the false lead is like a red herring”. For one thing, the phrase red herring came from the use of the herring as a false lead, not any innate quality of the herring itself, which is what the simile-ified phrase implies.
Someone who is “the belle of the ball” is different than someone who is “like a belle at a ball” (the latter implies the object is not at a ball). A cop who yells “Freeze!” is perfectly reasonable, but a cop who yells “Stop moving as if you were frozen!” is just asking for the person they’re yelling at to drive them nuts by singing Let It Go, assuming they don’t just run off in the time it takes the cop to say all that. “Cold as ice” is a cliché but clear description of how cold something is, but if you say that it is “cold ice” you just sound like a redundant idiot. “Hold the phone” makes sense, but “wait as if you were holding a phone” is just plain ridiculous.
Now I’m using clichés as examples here, because they are easily recognisable for examples, but these problems affect the metaphors and similes that authors invent just as much as the tired, old clichés.
2. They aren’t just there to sound good. Make sure it’s needed. Despite the impression that I may have given at the start, metaphors and similes don’t always belong in a piece of writing. In a good piece of writing everything has a purpose – for metaphors and similes that purpose is to clarify by example first and foremost. The other major purpose they serve is to add alternatives to the same descriptions that are usually used, so that the work does not become repetitive and dull. The addition of poetic eloquence and beauty to a work is the third thing they can do, but it is also the least important. That seems simple enough, but I’ve read far, far too many bad novels and fanfics wherein the order of importance has been applied the wrong way around. The result is that the reader becomes very frustrated and says “Oh, look, yet another superficially pretty sounding but utterly incomprehensible metamile that clogs up the page” and throws the book across the room (or jabs viciously at the close button on their screen. You do not want your writing to have this effect.
Consider this: The Hollywood horror film of a scene was an emetic. The body like a fallen rose was a throw rug across the bed. After moments ticked away like draining lifeblood, the detective brushed a swirl of his chocolate locks away from his angel’s face. “Well, fuck,” he murmured like a spring brook. (52 words)
Now compare to this: The murder scene was nauseating. The once-beautiful body was draped across the bed. After a few moments, the detective brushed a lock of his dark hair away from his angelic face. “Well, fuck,” he murmured. (35 words)
This is much better – it’s clear what every description belongs to, the tone is steady, and it actually uses less words. More importantly, there are fewer metaphors and similes. This is important, because the difference between regular prose and figures of speech is like that of a pat and a punch – similes and metaphors have more power to them, because they are so evocative, and so must be used more sparingly in order to retain any purpose or power.
3. They need to make sense. I touched on this a minute ago, but it bears repeating. METAPHORS AND SIMILES NEED TO MAKE SENSE. THAT THEY SOUND PRETTY ISN’T ANY HELP WHEN THEY’RE CONFUSING NONESENSE. *deep breath* Okay, I’m done e-bellowing now. This problem is more common than point 2 is, although the two tend to appear together when authors are describing their main characters. All too often writers will try to either make something more beautiful (typically character appearance or romance related) or avoid actually having to describe it (typically horror and action scenes) by using cool sounding metaphors and similes which mean absolutely nothing.
Ahem. His face was as kind as the ink of her heart’s glowing desire. What‽ Okay, up until ink everything, although cliché, made sense. After that? I don’t even think it’s possible to figure out what was meant. Heart’s desire is a thing, but it doesn’t glow and neither kindness nor glowing desires are made of ink.
The creature was as dark as a shadow in the sun, a spider among mountains, the eldritch thing moved like oozing rain as it shuffled its corpsely self across the room. I’m not scared and you’re not Lovecraft. Knock it off. The only hint we have as to what kind of monster we’re dealing with is “corpsely self”, not that “corpsely” is a word, and shuffled implies a zombie, but shadows don’t exist in the sun, mountains have plenty of spiders on them, not that the two would ever be compared by sane people, and rain doesn’t ooze – worse still, none of those things have anything to do with a potential, stereotypical, shuffling zombie. The net result is that no solid image can be formed and all the power of evocation is removed from the figure of speech used, resulting in a lot of pretty – but utterly meaningless – phrases that ultimately detract from the atmosphere of the scene and make it harder to picture. That’s basically the exact opposite of what metaphor and simile are supposed to do.
4. They need to fit the POV. Are you using the third person omniscient, the second person, first person, or third person limited? Whichever you choose for each project: the use of simile and metaphor must suit it.
An omniscient narrator telling a gothic horror story can describe a heroine as “natural beauty like that artificially created by computer alterations” (although this totally doesn’t fit the tone of a gothic horror!) because an omniscient narrator would know about that. However, the characters in that gothic horror novel absolutely could not use the same description, because it would be outside their realm of knowledge (unless the fourth wall is well and truly broken and they picked up the phrase from listening to the narrator).
Similarly, when you are writing in the second person you may be writing in the omniscient – as a storyteller telling as story about “you” (the audience) – in which case the same rule as in the omniscient third applies, but if you are writing in the second person in a limited form (epistolary fiction, for instance) you must constrain yourself to metaphors and similes which suit the character whose position you are writing from.
Then there’s the third person limited and first person points of view. Now you have to balance both appropriateness to setting and tone with the personality of the character whose thoughts you are making us privy to. Got a beautiful, clear, metaphor or simile for just this moment, but the character isn’t the type to use it? Tough luck. If a character isn’t of a poetic bent, they have no business bursting out with lines about how their love is a sad, sad, rose and how the too-quiet quiet is a shroud of silence upon the darkened library. Moreover, a character is constrained by what they know as well as their personality – if your character does not suspect anything wrong with the seemingly friendly person who is secretly their enemy, they have no business describing that person as “a devil with an angel’s face”. Sure they might think the person has the face of an angel, but if they don’t suspect the devil bit they can’t have it in their metaphor.
5. They shouldn’t be cliché. It saddens me to think that despite how painfully obvious this one is it still needs to be said. Overused metaphors and similes are called cliché for a reason, and that reason is that they’ve been used so many times that the readers are now sick of them. Sure, they were brilliant the first time someone used them, but ever since they’ve been hackneyed and, worse, a sign of lack of thought and effort on the writer’s part. The only real exception to this is when a character who would believably say such a thing uses one – although it is still inadvisable – because people do still say these things. I don’t include “in order to play with or make fun of them” as a valid reason because that has been done so far past death that it is to humour and prose what a bullet to the head is to zombies. Everyone does it, and easily.
6. And on top of all that: they still have to sound good. You may now scream in frustration. A metaphor or simile (and not an amalgam of the two) which is makes sense, packs a punch because it’s been used only as necessary, suits the setting and point of view, and is not cliché is still no use to anyone if it’s clunky and sounds terrible. In that case it’s better to just use more prose to handle the information. Wait; information? Yes: information. Any sentence, no matter how clear and pretty, which isn’t telling you anything new needs to go. Scene setting alone isn’t enough, because with a bit of effort any sentence can be made to both convey new information and set the scene or tone – containing both form and function, if you like.
If you write that: Her hair was brown. It hung like a chocolate waterfall down her back. Well. You don’t necessarily have to get rid of the simpler sentence, but that’s redundant and wasteful, so one of them has to go. It would be better to write: Her brown hair cascaded down her back, tangled and knotted like the bark of a mighty oak or some such. It conveys the same sentiment, but it doesn’t waste time with empty, repetitive words. This latter, although it could still stand improvement, is a big step up from both the earlier two sentences – one of which was very dull and the other of which was overly gaudy, neither of which is pleasing to the ear. (Chocolate waterfall? REALLY?)
I love a good figure of speech. I just wish I could see more of them in fiction.