Using Similes and Metaphors Correctly

In this post, we will see how to use figures of speech correctly. Metaphors and similes are the main figures of speech. They are used in creative writing to express thoughts in a non-linear fashion—to show the reader what is happening in a scene with visuals. Using figures of speech well is a great skill that comes from wear and tear. There is a fine line between the use of figures of speech and its abuse (for some examples, please see Semantics of Words). Figures of speech, if used correctly, can be a wonderful tool of creative writing.

There is a subtle difference between metaphors and similes. Metaphors are used directly, without the help of elements like ‘as’ or ‘like’. Similes are used with ‘as’ or ‘like’ to express the similarity of two things.

Examples of Great Writers Exploiting Figures of Speech

“For I mine eyes will rivet to his face, and after we will both our judgments join in censure of his seeming.” [William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet]

“He looked uncommonly like a master plumber come to present his bill.” [Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent]

“There was a lingering expression in his face that came upon me like a glimpse of some old friend flashing on one in a vivid dream.” [Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist]

"They see-there! like the skeleton of a ghost, just beneath the surface of Lake Dali-the delicate tracery, the intricate crisscross of colourless lines, the cold waiting veins of the future." [Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children]

“They sat in the dancing flames with the pillars of the house standing tall behind them like trees of the forest.” [JRR Tolkein, The Hobbit, from The Lord of the Rings collection]

“See me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill.” [George Orwell, 'Shooting an Elephant', a short story]

“It was raining when Rahel came back to Ayemenem. Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, plowing it up like gunfire.” [Arundhati Roy, God of Small Things; one of my favorites]

“The crazy coach rocked on its great leather springs, and swayed
like a boat tossed on a stormy sea.” [Bram Stoker, Dracula]

“Ford stared fixedly into the sky like a rabbit trying to get run over by a car.” [Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy]

“The face looked boyish and frighteningly serious - the eyes were black diamonds.” [Stephen King, Salem’s Lot]

“Pratap and Prasad came, blades of grass between their teeth, their close-fitting felt hats damp with sweat, their faces scorched by the sun and stained with sweat, their legs cased in white mud.” [V S Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas]

They were some great writers’ exploitation of metaphors and similes. Out of them, Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things is a classic, rich with figures. George Orwell’s metaphor, 'grinning corpse' even made me laugh aloud; image of a ‘grinning’ corpse is such funny.

How to Write in Metaphors and Similes

One of my friends has a little trouble. He snores too much in the night. A few days ago, while I was sharing lodging with him, one day I couldn’t sleep at all due to his snoring. After some time, irritated, I pressed my fingers hard over my ears. In the meanwhile, outside somewhere in the street, I heard two dogs growling at each other right before starting their fight. I could have written at that instant, “I spent the night, enduring my friend, who snored like growling dogs.” Such similar was both noises.

If you take closer look at them, you will know that most of the metaphors and similes are purely from the experience of the writers. Things they have seen in their own lives, things they experienced, they saw, heard, smelled, and touched.

That’s exactly how you will start using metaphors yourself. Start experiencing things. Go out more often and see things, which will inspire you to add more juice to your sentences.

Use Metaphors Carefully

Writers craft similes and metaphors from what they experienced in their lives. Arundhati Roy’s ‘silver lines plowing up the earth like gunfire’ is one such. I remember having seen the earth being plowed up with gunfire somewhere.

On the other hand, metaphors which are created, look like they are created. Anything created cannot inspire a reader's attention, and will succeed only in distracting him. There is a fine line between good and bad figures of speech. Look at this:

“Jim dragged the baggage along like a dog pulling a sledge.”

It’s an example of the inept use of metaphor. You can’t associate Jim’s dragging the baggage and dog’s pulling a sledge. Dogs pull the sledge in an agile manner and most of the time, the dogs would be running happily. Jim is not dragging a heavy baggage happily and agilely.

Other Examples of Inept Figures

Here are some metaphors and similes, which I tried to make as inept as possible. These should give you an idea of what you should avoid.

The president shook both hands with the prime minister like pulling water from the well.

Chris played the piano as he was typing on a keyboard.

Michelle cat-walked into the loud showroom with an air of a fettered dog, looking sideways.


Conclusion

When you write, your best bet at creating metaphors is trusting your experiences. Make sure you clearly see your situations and characters, and try associating them with anything you previously experienced. This will make things easier for you.

Related Entries:

Writing Great Dialogs
Some More of Creative Writing Thoughts
Prompts for Creative Writing
Guide to Busting Your Writer's Block
Rethinking and Revising Imagery

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

4 Opinions:

  1. When I was in school I literally used to mess up with the usage of Metaphors and Similes. I agree with you lenin that most of the metaphors and similes are purely from the experience of the writers and they use them to add juice to the sentences. Always a pleasure to read the wonderful examples in your post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I opened the door and there he stood. Anchored to my front porch like a hundred year old oak tree. His crooked similie was that of a farm dog who had just sneaked a freshly layed goose egg. With a raised brow I asked the handsome vagrant, "what's that metaphor?" In a voice that was as soft as an old down pillow he replied, "the better to smell you with my dear."

    How's that?

    ReplyDelete
  3. I get so confused with metaphors and similes. I always think that metaphors use LIKE or AS and similes are not using those words.

    Please help

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Anonymous2: You read the post, I have described which uses which. Why doubt then?

    ReplyDelete

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