Similes and metaphors are extremely useful tools for writers, they bring extra depth and layers to the writing in ways that normal description doesn’t.
New writers don’t always understand the difference between the two or how they should be used, and often think they have the same function, but they do differ, and offer different things to the writer. As with many literary devices, it’s how they’re used they makes them effective, not how many are used.
A simile is a fairly simple figure of speech - it compares two separate things by using connecting words such as, as if, as though or like, for example:
His voice sounded gritty, like footsteps across gravel.
Her words became dull, as though muffled by water.
John’s face screwed up, as if an electric charge had shot through him.
With each of the examples, there is a connecting word – “like” and “as though”, which help to make the comparison. So in the first example, the gritty voice sounds like footsteps across gravel. In the second one, dull words sound as though they’re muffled by water. And in the last one, John’s features change, the kind of expression you might see from an electric shock, so the comparison becomes a visual prompt for the reader.
This kind of description helps the reader better imagine the scene. The similes lift the description and make it more vivid. They help the reader interpret the description with sounds and images.
Writers don’t always realise they’ve used a simile because we use them all the time in every day speech when we describe something to another person. We automatically layer what we say to help the other person visualise it. That’s how commonplace similes are.
The best use of similes is to do it with key descriptive scenes. Don’t overload the narrative with them, otherwise it becomes too much and will detract from the description. Let them lift those descriptive moments and help the reader “see” the scene.
Read any book and you’ll see plenty of similes placed carefully throughout.
Metaphors provide slightly more depth to the description. They are more complicated, and unlike similes, they are not found in everyday speech. For this reason, they take a bit more thought to construct and convey the right meaning.
They act as a contrast, like similes, but they don’t use the connecting words of “like” or “as though”. They refer to one thing by mentioning another as a way of comparison, for example:
He drowned in a silence as vast as the ocean.
Alice ran through the colourful fields of a barren landscape.
Fear fell across his face in cold, callous flakes.
John fanned his feathers in her presence, though she barely noticed.
There are no connecting words but there are comparisons. In the first example, the silence is compared to the ocean, in which the character feels as though he is drowning. The fact that silence isn’t something that you can actually drown in doesn’t matter, but by showing this comparison to the reader, the visual impact means the reader can imagine the strength of the silence is such that it overwhelms and therefore “drowns” him.
The second example shows Alice running through imaginary ripe fields, yet in reality the landscape is barren. The fact that there can’t possibly be any fields in a barren landscape doesn’t matter - the comparison makes the reader take notice of the description, and that’s what metaphors do.
The third example shows the character’s fear, externalised as the cold snowflakes that fall about his face. This helps the reader understand that fear by imagining the sting of those icy flakes against the skin, so in this instance, the fear is compared to something quite cold.
The last example shows how showing off is compared to a bird fanning its feathers to impress the female. The man clearly doesn’t possess any feathers, but it’s meant symbolically and it shows his infatuation with the other character through this comparison.
This is how metaphors work; they induce the reader further into the story with striking, stylistic descriptions that are powerful enough without the need to write reams of description. They can encompass anything, with a little thought. This is why writers should consider them carefully, since not all metaphors work. Don’t mix metaphors, don’t force them for the sake of needing a metaphor every few pages, and don’t try to be too clever with them either.
A metaphor only works when the meaning is meant, and it will enhance the description.
Can you mix metaphors and similes? In moderation, yes. The same rule applies in terms of overloading the narrative. One or two here and there can enrich the narrative, but too many will spoil it, so make sure the comparisons mean something, and the meaning of the narrative is enhanced because of it.
So, for instance, let’s take a simile and a metaphor from the examples above, and mix them:
His voice sounded gritty, like footsteps across gravel. But it seemed help would never come, and eventually, after hours of calling out, he fell silent and drowned in a silence as vast as the ocean.
Used together, the description is enhanced by the comparison of the simile, and the meaning hidden beneath the narrative comes to the foreground. In other words, this poor character is shouting out for help, which will never come, and so that awful desperation and sense of loneliness is clearly visible beneath the metaphor.
We use similes and metaphors to strengthen descriptions by evoking the senses and the reader’s imagination, and by cleverly hiding true meanings beneath the narrative, just waiting to be discovered.Next week: Getting into your character's head/mindset