How to Spice Up your Writing with Similes and Metaphors
We all use similes and metaphors every single day. They help us explain how we feel, make a point and add some color to our language.
Have you ever felt as hungry as a horse? Or been so tired you slept like a baby? Or noticed how time flies like an arrow? These are all examples of similes, comparisons made between two objects by using "like" or "as" to show a connection.
Likewise, you've probably heard it said that time is money, or that life is a roller coaster, or that someone had a heart of stone. These are all metaphors, comparisons made between two objects in a more direct fashion without the use of the words "like" or "as."
Similes and metaphors are examples of figurative language. You'll find them everywhere you look, in poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction and song lyrics. They add an extra layer of meaning to what's being said, sung or written about, in the same way that the right combination of herbs and spices can lift an ordinary meal to extraordinary gastronomic heights.
What is the Difference between a Simile and Metaphor?
Similes and metaphors are both used to make comparisons between two different objects, but one does this directly (metaphor) while the other does this indirectly (simile).
For example, let's take the words "voice" and "thunder". To describe someone whose voice booms out and sends shivers down your spine, you might write:
"His voice was like thunder echoing through my very being."
That's a simile, because you're saying his voice was like thunder. It resembles some of the qualities of thunder, but it's not exactly the same. If you wrote this instead:
"His voice was thunder echoing through my very being."
That's a metaphor. In this case you're not saying his voice was like thunder, you're saying it IS thunder. You're attributing the characteristics of thunder to the person's voice directly, rather than simply saying it has some of those characteristics.
Here's another example to make it perfectly clear:
"In the thick unyielding mud his shoes were like anti-gravity boots, making progress slow and frustrating."
I'm sure by now you can tell that's a simile, because of the phrase "like anti-gravity boots". To turn it into a metaphor, simply take out the word like:
"In the thick unyielding mud his shoes were anti-gravity boots, making progress slow and frustrating."
Definition of Simile
A simile is a figure of speech used to compare two objects that would seem to have nothing in common at first glance, such as alcohol and fish in the simile "He drinks like a fish". Similes are constructed using the words "like" or "as" to link the two objects together, such as --
- He's as tall as a tree
- Her eyes sparkled like stars in the sky
Simile and Metaphor in Poetry and Prose
Examples of simile and metaphor usage can be found in the writings of all the great authors. Every now and then, you come across one that's so unique and so original that it makes you wonder how on earth the author in question ever thought it up. Here's an example from Dickens' Bleak House, in which the rodent-like Mr. Vohles refuses an invitation to dine with John Jarndyce:
"My digestion is much impaired, and I am but a poor knife and fork at any time."
In the novel Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck describes Curley when he picks a fight with Lennie using the following simile:
"Curley was flopping like a fish on a line."
David Mitchell's novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is bursting with figurative language, such as this line spoken by Sister Umegae to the pregnant Orito:
"A Gift in your womb is like a warm stone in your pocket."
And this example, the final line of chapter 4 when Jacob is distracted by a man whose gaze he can't evade:
"The silent observer twists his head, like a hunting dog listening to the sound of its prey."
Similes & Metaphors
Simile and Metaphor in Song Lyrics
You'll find similes and metaphors in hundreds - if not millions - of songs. Ever since mankind began turning ideas into music and lyrcs, similes and metaphors have provided invaluable devices to get their message across.
Here's an example using similes in an early 20th century folksong collected by Maud Karpeles at Dunville in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland:
"She’s like the swallow that flies so high
She’s like the river that never runs dry,
She’s like the sunshine on the lee shore.
I love my love and love is no more."
And here's a more recent example from the Duran Duran song with the same title:
"Hungry like the wolf."
Or, depending on your musical tastes, you might be more familiar with this metaphor from a well-known musical:
"Life is a cabaret, old chum."
To turn this last example into a simile, you'd simply state that life is like a cabaret. Neil Young's song Heart of Gold includes the following metaphor:
"I've been a miner
For a heart of gold."
One of Bob Dylan's most famous songs includes the metaphor "The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind."
The band Everything But The Girl use this simile in their song Troubled Mind:
"You're like a goods train running through my life."
And Leonard Cohen's song Hallelujah includes the line:
"There's a blaze of light in every word."
Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two unrelated objects directly, such as:
- Her eyes are stars shining brightly
- He's a rock
In a simile the comparison is indirect, such as "Her hair is like silk." In a metaphor, the comparison is direct, such as "Her hair is silk."
Writing Similes and Metaphors
Examples of this kind of figuratve language can be found in almost any book you pick up. But how can you put them to use to improve your own writing?
Start by writing down what you want to say in the simplest possible way. For example, after being out in sub-zero temperatures, I might say my feet were cold. So I'd write that down as follows:
"My feet were cold."
Not very exciting, is it? Now I need to spice it up with a metaphor or two:
"My feet were blocks of ice, rivers of frozen pain winding their way up through frigid limbs."
I think that gets across how cold I was and also the effect the chill has on one's body. Suppose I sat by the fire to warm myself up. I might say:
"I sat by the fire to try to get warm."
Again, pretty uninspired. I might say instead:
"The heat from the roaring fire was a warm welcome, melting my disposition like an ice cream on a sultry summer afternoon."
The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance. - Aristotle's "De Poetica," 322 B.C.
And when spring arrives, the ice-covered lake thaws and becomes populated with an assortment of creatures including ducks and swans. Swans in particular seem to be able to glide across the surface effortlessly, but I was struck one day by their rather unusual shape when seen from a certain distance:
"A sea of swans drift quizzically across the water, like white question marks waiting to find their place at the end of a posing sentence."
Part of the fun in using similes and metpahors is in trying to come up with something unique, something original, something that makes your readers sit up and take notice. Look around your environment to find items that would make good comparisons, and then spend some time crafting the best figures of speech you can.
If that's too much like hard work, why not try rewriting some more familiar similes and metaphors yourself? Here are some ideas to help you get started, followed by some quickly penned examples to show what can be achieved with just a little thought:
- As useful as a chocolate teapot
- As proud as a peacock
- Like water off a duck's back
- Not the sharpest tool in the box
- A giant among men
- He kicked the bucket
- Rolling in dough
- Raining cats and dogs
- She swims like a fish
- He's as sharp as a tack
- Her words cut like a knife
And here are some examples:
- As useful as a dead man's watch
- As pointless as a tree in a car park
- Hope is the optimist's waiting room
Have fun making up your own similes and metaphors and be sure to try and include them in everything you write.