“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
—Louis L’Amour

How to Improve Your Metaphors and Similes

Ah, the metaphor and the simile.  Two of the most delightful tools of the writer.  They are like the precedent a lawyer needs to build a case.  Enabling one to show how two seemingly vastly different scenarios are exactly the same.

similePhoto by Dominic Alves

What can you do to improve yours?  Write them so they make sense.

The simile I wrote in the first paragraph, for example, makes sense coming from me because I’m a lawyer.  What I’m saying is that when you sit at your computer and search your heart for the perfect way to describe an image or a situation, consider more than just beauty of language and aptness of phrase-also check that the comparisons fit the character.

In addition to being  a lot of fun, tailoring your metaphors and similes to your POVs is a great way to distinguish the voices in your piece.  Below are a few things to think about when crafting metaphors and similes in fiction:

Tailor Similes and Metaphors to Profession

Have you ever noticed how professional jargon seems to slip into everyday speak?

My medical student friend was advised to stay away from a certain department because it was “malignant.”  And when I worked as a financial journalist, I found myself using the word “acquire” instead of “buy” when discussing the purchase of a pair of shoes.

We all do it and fictional people should too.

How would a painter describe the color of someone’s hair?  How would a kindergarten teacher muse on the behavior of her friend’s child? Ask yourself, how would a person in your character’s profession describe his or her situation?

Use the Right Similes and Metaphors for Age/Experience

When a child watches the glamorous celebrity accept her Oscar, she sees Cinderella.  When the mother watches, she simply sees Lupita.  This makes sense because the child has no idea who Lupita is but she does know Cinderella—she’s the princess in the blue dress and headband.

Age, experience and education play a huge part in how we see the world.  They determine the extent of our knowledge and ability to understand what we are seeing.

A disinterested teenager who spends his days playing video games probably wouldn’t say that a pattern on a pillow “reminds him of a Monet.”  Likewise, a revered art historian is not likely to compare a dramatic situation to Grand Theft Auto.

In practices in The Write Practice comments, I’ve often seen child characters use dialogue that is simply too sophisticated for their age.  This is because it’s the writer speaking rather than the character.  You can also fall into this trap when dealing with characters who aren’t supposed to be very educated.  Don’t be afraid to simplify language if it makes sense.

State of Mind Affects Similes and Metaphors, Too

Metaphors and similes should also align with the character’s feelings or moods.  In the chapter where he’s in love, the birds chirping are a beautiful love song.  But when he’s angry, the birds sound like nails on a chalk board.  Reversed, they take away from the sentiment that you are trying to create.  By making them coincide with the plot, they reinforce it.

How about you? How do you tailor similes and metaphors to your characters?

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes to write a scene using a metaphor and/or simile that is unique to the character.  Share with us below!

About Monica M. Clark

Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).

  • Rebecca

    Like a stain that refuses to be washed, or a scar that doesn’t ever heal… Lucy’s mind was constantly rewinding, going back to that time in the past, that one moment where she had decided end her life, once and for all. Her plans didn’t go according to what she had wanted. She managed to wake up the next morning, with stitches on her wrist and a drip running through the vein of her other arm. With time, she rebuilt her life but the memories stayed, refusing to fade or wash out of her mind.

    She still remembers that scene so vividly that she’d feel the sweat drip slowly across the back of her neck – just like that time. In the dark hours, when the rest of the world was asleep, Jonah would lay next to her, clutching her small but tense body, reassuring her with words that were half shouted as though he was trying to snap her out of a bad dream “it’s ok, you’re here, it’s all in the past, it’s not real!”

    Her mind would race, her breathing would become shallow, and she would scream silently inside of her mind.

  • Working in the IT industry, I found your article extrememly easy to compile.

    • Lol, I’m not in IT, but I take it “compile” is IT jargon?

  • Marc Elias

    Good practice task! Thanks. I hate what I’ve written, but don’t have time to re-do it now.

    Jenny still limped down to the pool every Sunday morning. The trip now took her at least an hour. The staff were new, young. She sometimes saw one of them driving a beat-up student’s car down her street. Once she waved – her good hand – hoping for a lift. Fat chance. Her right side flopped like a fish, holding her back as she tried to claw her way through the congealing air. By the time she arrived she was always drenched in sweat. The extra moisture made her scars look even scalier. She never removed her jacket, though; the staring just made it worse. This morning she had even considered not coming, with the heatwave and all. She couldn’t force herself to break routine, though, even now that it was worthless.

    “Good morning, Mrs. Hart,” the receptionist said, not looking up.

    “Mm.”

    “It’s very hot today, isn’t it?”

    “Yes, very.”

    “It’ll be nice to get in the pool then, to cool -”

    “I’m sure it would be,” Jenny snapped, “if I could swim any more.” The receptionist squeaked, realising her mistake. Jenny moved through the barrier before she could reply. She could imagine what the girl was thinking, though.

    Why are you here then, cripple?

    A child was sitting in her usual seat. She took a closer one, several seats away. She could feel staring, but ignored it. She didn’t blame them. Once she had wandered too close and had seen her own reflection in the water. In the artificial blue light, she looked like a drowned ghost. I am, in my own way, she thought. One day I went into the water, and came out all mangled and half dead. That’s not my fault, though. Before that I was just like you.

    • Nice! Tell me about the fish metaphors. Is it because she is outdoorsy? Or is just around fish a lot? What made her use them?

  • Young_Cougar

    Ummm,…I think the writing is a bit rigid but here it is.

    On Monday, Marla Kon-Ji-Mi walked into her office building wearing her brand new Alexander Mcqueen knee high heeled shoes. She waved to the security guard, keeping a neutral face, and relished the feeling as the ends of her shoes tip-tapped against the marble floor. They bought her a sense of adventure and sophistication, they allowed her to tower above the rest, they allowed her to believe she was beautiful. They were magical. She imbibed courage and determination from them. Like a sponge with water. She always felt this way with shoes, but the more she wore them the faster the magic seemed to fade off. The newer the better, especially today, when all her career could be hanging on one single presentation.

    • Here, I think a good way to tailor the simile is to replace “like a sponge with water” with something like “like her cellulose spa sponge with water.” Seems fitting to her style, don’t you think?

      • Young_Cougar

        Yea, thank you. 🙂

  • Chloee

    I stared out the window the pit pat of it was like soldiers marching. I felt the wind howl like a mangy dog. I heard the yelling in the other room like swords in the air. Mom and dad were fighting again. I pushed my red hair out of my face. I knew they would get divorced it was like a really bad movie first comes the yelling then the hitting then the divorce. I don’t care anymore it’s like a puddle it just keeps taking in the water till it just overflows. I just shut it all out. I walk up to my room and lay down waiting for death.

  • Janey Egerton

    Very nice article that applies not only to metaphors and similes, but in general to the voice of characters! Having been in academia for ten years, and in a technical field at that, I sometimes find it very hard to refrain from writing in a very formal style, and especially from explaining every single basic detail logically and structuredly. And when I catch my farmer saying “thus” and “hence” again, I think, “You idiot, farmer’s don’t speak like that! Now go back and rewrite the last ten pages.”

    • I think you’re right that it applies to the voice generally. Like the way a lawyer approaches an argument will be very different from the way a school counselor would. It’s OK if the voice is inconsistent the first time around–this is just another thing to look for in the editing process!

  • Luther

    The winding, tree lined road was coming fast and traffic was heavy due to the time of day when everyone was off work and headed home for the weekend. I told myself that I really
    needed to pay attention and follow my own advice I had given to my two boys, “Do
    be distracted”. Additionally, my little 1967 TR 6, without all of the
    added suspension electronics of modern cars, required all of my attention on
    these roads, curved like a twisted vine.

    I bought the car, British Racing Green, with red stripped Michelin tires, as a project car and boy had it been a project! It needed a full frame restoration, major rust repair and under panel replacement and I can’t even describe the work the engine needed. I can
    do a little bodywork, but the mechanical work had to be given to my brother-in-law. I am not as mechanically inclined, do not have all the necessary tools and he needed the work. What can I say about a brother-in- law; not the shiniest tool in the drawer.

    Coming up on a slower car, I down shifted, saw that there was no oncoming traffic and I punched the gas pedal to the floor. The TR 6 took off like a bird and I made the pass with
    ease, then I shifted again back into fourth gear, picked up more and more speed
    and approached a sharp curve. I downshifted to slow my speed, and then pressed
    the acceleration to make the tires bite the pavement like a cat running from a
    angry dog, as I easily rounded the curve.

    “Boy, this if fun”, I said to myself. The trees were going by in a blur, my hair was blowing in the breeze; life was good. Then my phone vibrated and I looked down. My wife, Deb,
    had texted me, “PU wine for dinner”. I texted back, “OK. R or W”. Her response
    was “R” and I responded,” Zin, Mer ?” The next text was “CAB” and I started
    typing “OK, See…” and that is when the right tire went off the road and
    everything became hazy as a fog bank.

    I do remember the tree coming to the front of my car and then I blacked out. My next memory was being dragged out of my car like a rag doll and the strong smell of gas and smoke. I remember looking up at this young, brunette woman in a blue uniform with a
    badge and thinking: “Boy, Deb is going to be hot as a habanero!”

    • Loved “shiniest tool in the drawer”–fitting in this case! Thanks for sharing!

  • She sighed to herself and stroked the thinning muscles in her thighs. All her dreams of dancing on stage had become dusty pirouettes of her mind. Her aspirations had diminished to a curtesy before the final curtain. She swept her arms up like a ballerina reaching for the stars but her ribs ached and her shoulders creaked as sadly as the rusty hinges on the old dance hall door.

    She pointed her toes out in opposing directions, slightly bent her knees and, like a failed plié, she crumbled to to the floor.

    A torrent of tears swept the final tinge of star-struck star dust from her eyes and gathered in a glistening pool as translucent as swan lake.

    • Marilyn Ostermiller

      Nicely done. I especially liked the “dusty pirouettes of her mind.”
      star-struck star dust might be a little over done.

    • Yes the pirourette comparison stood out for me as well. Good practice!

    • oddznns

      I loved all the metaphors. The failed plié worked for me.

  • Marilyn Ostermiller

    From my WIP, Dorsey is a 10-year-old girl. The story takes place in 1928.

    This morning when they climbed into the truck to ride the last few miles, Dorsey felt excited and light, as if a balloon swelled up inside her and she might float away. Now, it feels like someone let the air out.

    • Great example of tailoring your metaphors. Love the image you created here!

    • oddznns

      Love the balloon metaphor.

    • Well done. Beautifully and appropriately tailored to the subject age and story era.

    • Marilyn Ostermiller

      Thanks to Monica, Dawn and odzzns for your encouraging comments. They lift me like a helium-filled balloon.

  • james

    The boss sent out an email to everyone that there will be a company dinner today. I saw Maggie, sitting across from my desk, cringe as if she just smelt pungent food garbage during a hot humid summer. Everybody hates company dinner as much as Bill O’Rilley’s hate for Obama. But this is already the 10th company dinner since New Years.

    Jack, a fresh graduate and a new member to our company, couldn’t handle all the liquor being poured by the boss. He ran to the bathroom and held on to the toilet seat like his life depended on it. Endless amount of food and alcohol were being consumed faster than cocaine in Rick James’ giant stash.

    Worst of all, today’s Monday and we will still have to be in the office by 8 a.m sharp as a laser. It’s 1 a.m and it seems like this dinner that almost seems like a college freshmen drinking party won’t be stopping anytime soon.

    (P.S. This is really what happens in Korean working culture)

    • I like the phrase “as much as Bill O’Rilley’s hate for Obama”–I think that says a lot about the character. But watch out for cliches like “like his life depended on it.” Thanks for sharing!

    • Some great scathing American corporate inside lingo in this piece. I’m not from America so they stand out to me. Great practice. Thanks for sharing.
      Ioved …
      ‘….consumed faster than cocaine in Rick James’ giant stash.’….and …

      ‘Everybody hates company dinner as much as Bill O’Rilley’s hate for Obama.’

      🙂

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  • Charles

    Aaron’s t.shirt stuck to his chest like a sweat drenched towel. He knew the look. Every morning while drinking his coffee he had watched the joggers run in the park. He hated the feeling of his fat stomach pressing against the belt which he sometimes had to loosen. Two months earlier he decided to begin running. God, it was hard! It took just five minutes of running for him to bend over and grab whatever was handy as he gasped and strained for each painful breath. But he was determined to become one of them, one of his idols of health and stamina. And now he had earned his badge of honor. The sweat dripping from his body pooled into his shirt for all to see that Aaron had got past that first great hurdle in the world of excuses. He could feel the eyes upon his body and pained face as he dripped along the pathway,looking like an Olympic runner, winning his inner battle, not giving up, and finally crossing the finish line. Now Aaron was one of the joggers and he proudly wore his soaked shirt to prove it.
    Aaron’s t.shirt stuck to his chest like a sweat drenched towel. He knew the look. Every morning while drinking his coffee he had watched the joggers run in the park. He hated the feeling of his fat stomach pressing against the belt which he sometimes had to loosen. Two months earlier he decided to begin running. God, it was hard! It took just five minutes of running for him to bend over and grab whatever was handy as he gasped and strained for each painful breath. But he was determined to become one of them, one of his idols of health and stamina. And now he had earned his badge of honor. The sweat dripping from his body pooled into his shirt for all to see that Aaron had got past that first great hurdle in the world of excuses. He could feel the eyes upon his body and pained face as he dripped along the pathway,looking like an Olympic runner, winning his inner battle, not giving up, and finally crossing the finish line. Now Aaron was one of the joggers and he proudly wore his soaked shirt to prove it.
    Hope you don’t mind a new writer here. I take a lot of liberty calling myself a writer, especially when I think of myself more as a dreamer. Thank you. Charles

  • oddznns

    The Human Rights delegation was seated in the front of the room, lined up like an examination committee. Nina felt herself settle. It was going to be no different than defending her dissertation, but this time she’d be defending real humans, abused, tortured and mauled flesh and blood.

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  • Another way to improve them is to spend a week writing down all the ones you see in print. A good place to look is the op ed page of the newspaper. Usually writers get told not to use them because they’re too flowery and ornate. But I was really surprised to see how many common use words were actually metaphors or similes. Sometimes the best way to identify what something is or explain it is to frame it very simply with a metaphor (and if you were watching, I just used on in that sentence).