Using (and overusing) similes and metaphors

In case you don’t know already, a simile is “a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid,” usually introduced by the words as or like. A metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable: “I had fallen through a trapdoor of depression,” said Mark.

Figurative language adds depth and resonance to writing. Be careful when you think about using them, however, because you can have too much of a good thing. I caution writers against peppering their prose with similes and metaphors. In the strictest sense, you should use a comparison only when 1.) you think the reader won’t quite get the picture without it and 2.) when you aren’t able to provide an approximate description without it. If your comparisons become gratuitous, you’re pushing your luck with readers, who may find them intrusive once you’ve crossed the line.

Tip: Similes and metaphors are best when they are a natural part of a character’s environment. If you’re writing a western, for instance, you shouldn’t say, “He looked like a New York City street peddler.”

Here are some fresh and effective similes:

“Tom felt weighed and measured as neatly as a goose on market day.”

“The crew got as skittery as water on a hot griddle.”

“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.” (Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely, 1940)

“Some dance critic, who worked behind the bar in a honky-tonk, said that when Boomer danced he looked like a monkey on roller skates juggling razor blades in a hurricane. (Tom Robbins, Skinny Legs and All, 1990)

“Rails suspended overhead, from which black chains hung like jungle vines that clattered through their blocks, making a tooth-rattling noise, a noise like the jabbering of a thousand jawbones in a thousand skulls.” (John Griesemer, Signal and Noise. Hutchinson, 2004)

“Carl reached for the phone, his gut tightening. Even before he heard the voice on the other end, he suspected—no, knew—it would be him. ‘You did real well,’ the voice said, a voice like dry leaves rustling down a sidewalk.” (J. Michael Straczynski, “We Killed Them in the Ratings.” Blowout in Little Man Flats, ed. by Billie Sue Mosiman and Martin Greenberg. Rutledge Hill, 1998)

“I took a deep breath and started to speak. I can’t remember half of what I said, but I do know that I was at least a million times more inspiring than Lyle Filbender. He sounded like a defective robot in need of a battery change and had to be reprimanded twice for calling the Mission’s clients ‘bums.’“ (Maureen Fergus, Exploits of a Reluctant (but Extremely Goodlooking) Hero. Kids Can Press, 2007)

“For all his roughness and arrogance, the boy was transformed when he was in the presence of girls. He spoke in a voice as soft as the silken filaments that float out of a cocoon.” (Carol Field, Mangoes and Quince. Bloomsbury, 2001)

“Without warning, Lionel gave one of his tight little sneezes: it sounded like a bullet fired through a silencer.” (Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)

“The street was alive with them, hollow-eyed and faceless astride coal-black horses, their muffled hoofbeats sounding like rapid shots miles away. Only these sounds were right here and I was in the midst of them. Sabers whistled. Once I heard a noise like a cook’s cleaver striking half-boiled meat, a nauseating sound. Then there were real shots, hard and sharp, like derisive coughs, and metal-gray smoke that mingled with the white vapor exhaled by the horses.” (Loren D. Estleman, Murdock’s Law, 1982)

“Everyone who heard it—even the people who said that Dylan sounded like a dog with his leg trapped in barbed wire—knew Bob Dylan was a phenomenon.” (Lewis Macadams, Birth Of The Cool. The Free Press, 2001)

“When the train horns sounded and then were quiet, there were pure reverberations up and down the river that sounded like a plucked harp string or a piano note sustained by holding down a pedal.” (Mark Knudsen, Old Man River and Me: One Man’s Journey Down the Mighty Mississippi. Thomas Nelson, 1999)

“The floorboards creaked in the room where Rain used to be, and the branches of the cherry tree in the front yard near Edgar Allan Poe’s grave swayed in the wind. They scratched against the glass with a soft tap, tap, tap. It sounded like a lizard’s paws. Then it sounded like a serpent’s tongue. Then it sounded like five weak fingers rapping on the windowpane, the same gentle fingers that used to comb and braid Alice’s hair.” (Lisa Dierbeck, One Pill Makes You Smaller. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)

“Welshmen like Mr. Davis put great stock in Welsh singing, but to my Irish ears it sounds like men jumping off chairs into a bathtub full of frogs.” (P.J. O’Rourke, “The Welsh National Combined Mud Wrestling and Spelling Bee Championship.” Age and Guile, Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995)

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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