How to Use Similes and Metaphors for Creative Writing
“I was gobsmacked! There was my son, the cheeky monkey, ferreting around in my bedroom, happy as a sandboy! Well, he was off like a shot and disappeared in a puff of smoke before I could get my claws into him. Ooh! He’s dug a hole for himself this time, the little devil. I’ve got enough on my plate without this!”
Similes and metaphors are not just writing techniques; we use them in our speech every day without thinking about them.
Why? Because they can give a stronger image or a more exact description. If you say someone has a pointed nose, we can imagine how they look. But if you say they have a pointed nose like a weasel, the linked meanings – connotations – of the word weasel suggest that the person is untrustworthy and someone to be despised. If you say someone ran away quickly, we understand what you mean, but when you say they disappeared in a puff of smoke, we are reminded of a magician’s performance, and we understand that it happened so quickly that it was almost like a magic trick.
Whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction or poetry, using similes and metaphors can add layers of meaning to your writing and convey complex ideas in a few words.
What is a simile?
It’s easy to remember: a simile is similar. A simile is a figure of speech which compares one thing with another which is similar in some way, using the words like or as.
- My love is like a red, red rose.
- She marched in, as bold as brass.
- Mary had a little lamb; its fleece was white as snow.
- He’s as old as the hills.
- Don’t start whining like a puppy – deal with it!
Why don’t some similes make sense?
Some traditional similes have historic meanings, so we no longer notice the connotations but continue to use the phrases:
- As pleased as Punch – the puppet Punch from a Punch and Judy show had a fixed smile and a self-satisfied personality.
- As good as gold – originally nothing to do with good behaviour, but meant ‘as genuine as gold’ compared with paper money.
- As mad as a hatter – hat-makers sometimes developed dementia caused by mercury poisoning.
- As dead as a doornail – those big studs in castle doors were hammered through like nails, then the ends were bent over to keep them in place, so the nail was ‘dead’, as it could never be used again.
What is a metaphor?
A metaphor is a figure of speech which describes one thing as something which it isn’t. For example, in the sentence He is a giant in the world of computers, you’re not talking about someone very tall – the word giant is a metaphor. And he isn’t actually standing on a planet inhabited only by computers, so that’s a metaphor, too. It’s replacing an abstract concept with a mental image of something physical – the idea of one man who is much more powerful and successful standing out in a visible way.
A metaphor doesn’t say it is like something – it says it is something.
- In this terrifying world, my religion was a rock I could cling to.
- Wow, thanks! You’re a star!
- I held his heart in my hands, but it was an unwanted gift.
- My Dad is a real baby when it comes to injections.
- I have a mountain of housework to finish.
- She didn’t realise it, but she was trampling over our hopes and dreams.
Extending a metaphor can increase its power. An extended metaphor uses the same idea more than once.
- In the jungle of New York, she was a prowling leopard, and by midnight, he would be her prey.
- Their love was a delicate flower, first a tender green shoot, then growing with every season to become a beautiful rose.
A mixed metaphor is where you use two or more ideas to describe the same thing:
- The boss was growling in his lair, but I decided to bite the bullet and charge in with my banners waving.
Here you have the image of the boss as a dangerous wild animal, then the narrator as a modern soldier biting on a bullet to help endure pain, and suddenly he’s a knight on horseback!
- She was a black widow spider crouching over the world of showbiz, and she was galloping to success with her fingers in every pie.
Er… so she’s a spider, and then a horse. A horse with fingers?
The mixed metaphor is not an effective use of language, because it confuses your readers instead of adding to their understanding and enjoyment. The only time you should use it is as dialogue for a character who is stupid – especially if they’re trying to appear clever!
Many similes and metaphors are such ideal choices that they have become clichés – tired old phrases which only a poor writer would use, since they have lost their power to add extra layers of meaning and become easy, that’ll-do, rubber-stamp options:
The night was as black as coal; his eyes were flinty; she felt as free as a bird; he looked like he’d seen a ghost; her hair cascaded like a waterfall; the office was a hive of industry; her eyes were pools of limpid water; it was as hard as iron, etc.
It’s always better to use similes and metaphors which will affect the reader’s emotions, so take the time to think up some different ideas. The exception to this would be dialogue. Since people use clichés in ordinary speech, it sounds natural for a character to say something like, “Come in out of the cold, you poor lamb. Why, you’re half-frozen – your hands are cold as ice!”
Well, I’m sure you’re falling over your feet to get some star-studded similes and magical metaphors in your writing, so I’ll back off and let you dive right in!
Emily Lock is a freelance writer and blogger about the ups and downs of trying to evolve towards a better life.
Her Emily the Dodo blog is updated every week, with ideas to inspire you to make those changes, quizzes to help you decide what you want and planners so you can figure out how you’re going to get it, along with life hacks to make it easier. Come and join Emily on the journey to a happy life.