Metaphors and Similes
Rather than relying solely on colors, odors, textures, flavors and tones most writers convey image by comparing the images described with others already familiar to the reader. In this way, the writer is able to connect to the readers lived experience of other objects rather than having to rely on abstractions such as "red" or "sour." The two most widely recognized categories of such comparisons are similes and metaphors. 1
A simile, as most of you probably remember from high school English class, is a comparison using "like" or "as." for example:
- When the pickup hit it, the armadillo came apart like a watermelon flung across the asphalt.
- His headache was as painful as a root canal without the benefit of laughing gas.
- My love is like a red, red rose. - Robert Burns
- Her hair was like gravy, running brown off her head and clumping up on her shoulders.
- The day we passed together for a while seemed a bright fire on a winter's night - Maurice Sceve
- You are like a hurricane: there's calm in your eye, but I'm getting blown away - Neil Young
- The air-lifted rhinoceros hit the ground like a garbage bag filled with split pea soup. 2
Similes can be very effective, especially when they juxtapose two dissimilar things the reader has never previously associated.
A metaphor is a comparison that speaks of one thing as if it were another:
The Oldsmobile was a boat, and Jason was the captain. The searchlights on the bow shone through the heaviest weather. The hold in the back could carry the largest of cargoes. The stateroom was the most comfortable on the high seas, with wide bench seats and a deluxe stereo system. "All ahead full," Jason commanded, and shifted into drive.
One danger with both metaphors and similes, with which the above example flirts, is using a simile or metaphor that does not surprise the reader, such as "The big car was a boat." 1
Other examples of metaphors:
- You are my sun.
- That throws some light on the question.
- The couch is the autobahn of the living room.
- Six Flags is the aquarium of roller coasters.
- This is a crisis. A large crisis. In fact, if you've got a moment, it's a twelve-story crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour porterage and an enormous sign on the roof saying "This Is a Large Crisis."
- "All the world's a stage / and all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances; / And one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages." 3
In practice, writers don't exclusively use metaphors or similes. Overuse of any one mode can be very distracting to a reader. Most writers, don't even think consciously about the different techniques as they write their first draft, and simply use what comes to mind as they work. Like most of the other techniques and concepts addressed this week, an understanding metaphors and similes will probably be most useful to you once you have already written a draft. They will provide you with the tools and vocabulary to understand what you have done, and what your tendencies are when you provide description.
After you have written your first draft ask yourself about the use of metaphors and similes. Have you used too many of of one or the other? Too much or not enough of both? Don't add metaphors and similes just for the sake of adding some in. Instead, focus on your sentences. Where would the a metaphor or simile be most effective? Write down what sort of sensory details come to mind as you think about your subject. Then examine them to see if any can be used as a metaphor and simile. Ask yourself if the metaphors and similes will be understood by your audience, because the audience may come from a wide range of backgrounds that may make only the most general similes and metaphors appropriate.
It's helpful, too, to look at how other writers blend the techniques to provide evocative description. Look at the examples below and examine their use of metaphors and similes. 4
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image. 5
I faced about again, and rushed towards the approaching Martian, rushed right down the gravelly beach and headlong into the water. Others did the same. A boatload of people putting back came leaping out as I rushed past. The stones under my feet were muddy and slippery, and the river was so low that I ran perhaps twenty feet scarcely waist-deep. Then, as the Martian towered overhead scarcely a couple of hundred yards away, I flung myself forward under the surface. The splashes of the people in the boats leaping into the river sounded like thunderclaps in my ears. People were landing hastily on both sides of the river. But the Martian machine took no more notice for the moment of the people running this way and that than a man would of the confusion of ants in a nest against which his foot has kicked. When, half suffocated, I raised my head above water, the Martian's hood pointed at the batteries that were still firing across the river, and as it advanced it swung loose what must have been the generator of the Heat-Ray. 6
My school-days! The silent gliding on of my existence - the unseen, unfelt progress of my life - from childhood up to youth! Let me think, as I look back upon that flowing water, now a dry channel overgrown with leaves, whether there are any marks along. 7
- Fictional Narrative Basics - Description 10
- Fictional Narrative Basics - Description 11
- The Communist Manifesto by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx
- The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens