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Metaphor, Simile, and a Big Place to Grow Grass

This guest post is by Neal Abbott. Neal has written three novels, one of which, Prince, is being released November 6th. He blogs at A Word Fitly Spoken. You can also find him on Twitter (@nealabbott). Thanks Neal!

A student once asked her English teacher, “What’s a metaphor?” and he replied, “It’s a big place to grow grass.”

I don’t think he understood the question.

We’ve grown with up the distinction between similes and metaphors, but in a technical sense, all comparisons are metaphors. But let’s stick to this separation of powers, and think about the problem with similes and why metaphors may be better for your writing.

The Problem with Similes

Similes are far more common than metaphors. So if you write profusely in simile, your writing will not be distinct, and will die of being common.

Metaphors are harder to write, but they sing like Caruso—wait, I just used a simile to tout the virtues of metaphors. See, I told you it’s harder than you thought.

Similes often suffer because of bad writing. They are sometimes attached to weak being verbs but not always. Something like, “Her voice bounced like a ball,” or “His jaw dropped as if it were made of iron,” use good action verbs. These similes are fine.

But too often they follow the dreaded “is.” Any simile like, “Her singing is like …” or, “The old house was like …” are so bad, I didn’t even want to finish the simile. The failure of these similes is that they are all examples of telling. Instead of telling me what her singing is like, or what the old house is like, show me how her singing or the old house can be compared to whatever it is you wish to compare them to.

The Solution to the Problem

Bad similes are an easy difficulty to fix (is that a paradox or an oxymoron?). Just turn your simile into a metaphor. Take the sentence, “His head is like a baloney.” I know. I want to punch myself right now for writing that. Writing that loathsome sentence has made me more stupider, and I am afraid I shall never recover unless I fix it.

All you have to do is make “baloney” modify “head” in an adjectival sense and make the head do some kind of action, or at least put it in a sentence without an intransitive verb. If that confused you, let me show you what I mean.

➢ His baloney head looked too large for his body.
➢ His baloney of a head couldn’t manage to keep his ballcap on in the wind.
➢ His head glistened in the same way baloney does when it’s left out in the sun.

Well, none of these are perfect, but maybe they illustrate how any simile can be changed into a metaphor, and why that may be preferable. You can do better than these illustrations. You are only limited by your creativity.

And remember, a metaphor is like a smile.

PRACTICE

White about a half-dozen to ten lame similes, then put them aside. Do something else for about ten minutes. Look them over and write a few of them again as wonderful and powerful metaphors. Go do something else for about ten minutes.

When you return, write for fifteen minutes about any subject you wish using your new metaphors.

When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please give some feedback to a few other writers.

Good luck!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

    This reminds me of one of my pet peeves: the X that is Y.

    For example: The hellhound that is my little brother growls at me.

    For some reason, those kinds of metaphors always seem awkwardly worded.

    But while I’m here…”My little brother, whose surliness turned him into a hellhound, growled at me.”

  • Dreamweaver526

    Joe and Neal, thank you for this. I’m doing ANOTHER edit of my manuscript and have been trying to get some of the ‘telling’ out of it. This post on similes and metaphors was really helpful. I shall apply the lesson today! Thanks again. Very amusing, Su

    • http://twitter.com/NealAbbott neal abbott

      Thanks for the comment and I am glad my few words have helped. Remember, there really is no such thing as a finished manuscript. Just one you have decided to edit no further. Thanks for reading and good luck with your manuscript.

  • wendy2020

    A similie is like a metaphor where lots of grass grows.  ;)

    Sorry, tapping out after a single intentionally painful submission.

  • http://kausarbilal.blogspot.in/ Kausar Bilal

    A very interesting read! No doubt showing has a deeper impact than telling. Turning similes in to metaphors is a nice technique. 

  • crwills

    This post convinced my editing hat that I should do a search of my manuscript for the word ‘like’ and change most of the similes to metaphors.
    Thank you. :)

  • Oddznns

    This was a great practice for learning the difference between tell and show. I found I needed to add a lot of automatic “show” to make the metaphors bloom.
    Here are my 6 examples.

    1.     He looked like a starveling

    Overnight, the illness turned suave handsome Raj into the kind of starveling
    featured on BBC documentaries.

    2.     Sunday evenings feel like over-chewed
    gum.

    By evening, I’d sucked all the flavour out of Sunday.  The hours left to bedtime were just a piece
    of over-chewed gum I had to hold on to, until I found a trash can to spit into.

    3.     He blew through the room like a
    little tornado.

    He was a four year old force of nature, a little tornado sending the
    drapes and cushions and papers whirling every which way.

    4.     She fussed like an old hen

    Henrietta was such an old hen, always pecking away at our manners and
    fussing over our clothes. Did she really think the sky would fall in if
    something was less than perfect?

    5.     I felt woozy like an old drunk.

    That one drink was powderful.  I
    felt like an old drunk as I crossed the ship’s deck, my stomach churning and my
    head woozy.

    6.     She was as seductive as a troll on
    clogs.

    She danced towards me in her Dutch girl costume, her short fat body
    waddling, a troll on clogs.  I smiled and
    tried hard to look tactfully appreciative.

     

    • Lisa Roberts

      I thought these were great.  I especially like your makeover on the hen and troll.  Nice job!

    • Marla

      I love #6!

    • Mirelba

       Good job!  I liked them all, especially #2.  BTW, in 5, the rewrite was more descriptive, but you still have that bothersome “like” there…

    • http://www.facebook.com/zoe.dyer Zoe Beech

      My favourites are the Sunday chewed gum and seductive troll – that one’s a great simile.  

  • Jo Antareau

    Hi, I’m new to this blog, but decided to come play today.
    I tried the exercise. Interesting process. My similes grate, (rather than “my similes are great”), but turning them into metaphors is not as easy at it seems.   I tried the exercise with four similes… here they are:

    Simile (poor): The sliding door squealed, as insistent as a hungry cat.Became- the meow of the sliding door demanded the attention I could not give it right now.Simile: My son’s head is bent over his Nintendo as if he were prayingMetaphor: My son worships at the alter of his Nintendo daily, not just on Sundays.Simile: The traffic crawled like treacle pouring from a narrow bottle neck.Metaphor: I was making treacle-like progress in this morning traffic.Simile: The tropical sun loomed large overhead, as omnipresent and merciless as a dictator.Metaphor: The dictatorial sun beat down on the tropical street, heat filling every shadow and light piercing every pair of sunglasses.

    • Lisa Roberts

      Love the “worships at the alter of his Nintendo”

    • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

      Welcome, Jo, thanks for playing! I especially love your cat metaphor.

  • Jo Antareau

    Something happened to my paragraph breaks in my previous comment… Each simile/ metaphor pair was on a separate line, but they all got jammed together in the translation.  

    • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

      When you copy from Word, that tends to happen. There should be an edit button on the bottom right of the comment after you post so you can edit it if you prefer.

  • Lisa Roberts

    1.  The birth of my first child was a mind blowing experience.

    The moment I first held him in my arms, my heart swelled with love overflowing and my head literally spun as the earth’s orbit realigned itself, making this tiny little stranger the new center of my world.  

    2.  I spend my days like an ant in a colony.

    I’ve spent the morning mimicking an ant, working from room to room, moving things to their proper place, trying to create some semblance of order after a long summer filled with extra kids and three weeks of vacation in the last 32 days. 3.  The combination of their shouts, laughter and splashing is like a cacophony of noise.  Their shouts, laughter and splashes make no difference to me now.  Like the sounds of crickets and frogs on a late August evening, their cacophony is now simply the background music to a typical summer day.  4.  A new school year will roll in with the tide just as it drags the summer back out to sea.With the start of a new school year, I know this season of busy-ness will soon recede like the tide.   In its place will come vast flotsam of personal time, waves of deafening silence casting me adrift once again into the dark, moody waters that lie now just beyond the water’s edge.  

    • Jo Antareau

      Hi Lisa. Great writing! 
      I really loved #2 and #3, I can certainly relate! However, my personal opinion is that the single sentence, “A new school year will roll….” worked better in your first example than the second (“With the start of the new…”) . Then again, I think the original might have been a metaphor anyway; the second version expanded on the theme, and might have been a little over-written. The original was snappy and conveyed all the info needed. 
      Nice job.

  • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

    This is a great post, Neal!

    • http://twitter.com/NealAbbott neal abbott

      Thanks, Katie. Wishing great things for you!

  • http://twitter.com/Sophie_Novak Sophie Novak

    Neal, this was very useful. Great job with sharing your insight and good luck with the book!

    • http://twitter.com/NealAbbott neal abbott

      Thanks, Sophie, and a continued hope for the best for you!

  • Mirelba

    I tried the tritest similes I could think of, not always  so easy to switch (see sweet as sugar- eh).  Nice exercise.  But have to say, that I went through all my writing stored on the computer, and the only “like” simile I found was #3.

    1.      
     

    2.      
    He was fast like the wind.

    He was the wind, racing across the street.

    2. She tiptoed in like a burglar trying to be still

    She tiptoed in, burglar-still, hoping to sneak past her
    parents’ bedroom without their hearing her..

    *

    3. My great uncle who was like a grandfather to me

    My great uncle, who was a grandfather to me in every way,
    would pick me up from school every day.

    *

    4. As traditional as apple pie.

    Every June, our town celebrates the last day of school with
    a parade.  It has become our town’s apple
    pie.

    5. She was sweet as sugar

    She was so sweet, she sweated sugar…

     

    6. Her cheeks burned red as a rose

    The wind burned roses onto her cheeks.

    *

    7. He felt parched, dry as the desert.

    He felt parched, his throat desert dry, so dry that if felt
    sandy, gritty.

    *

    8. Her eyes grew round like an owl’s.

    Her round owl eyes took it all in.

     

    9. He laughed merrily, like a child.

    His merry child’s laugh followed me out the door.

    10.  The chalk
    squeaked sounding like cat yowls.

    The chalk inched down the board, scratching out cat yowls all
    the way down.

     

    • Oddznns

      Some of these were already good as similes. The ones that got better as metaphors  were (1), (5), (6) and (10). The sweet as sugar especially was great… sweating sugar, wow!

      • Mirelba

         My problem with the sweating sugar, is that it seems to change the whole tone of it.  While sweet as sugar may sound ‘sacharinny ‘ (or should I just say too sweet…) the sweating sugar seems to sound snide.