Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Gondolier on the Metaphor

Alice is to Pixie as Edward is to Adonis

Simile and Metaphor in Fiction

You’ve used every adjective and adverb in your dictionary. You find yourself describing scenes like a play-by-play announcer. You can’t think of another possible way to write about Bella’s clumsy feet, Edward’s bronze hair, or Alice’s bouncy enthusiasm. Perhaps you feel as though you’re stuck in a writing rut, using the same descriptions over and over again with your limited MS Word thesaurus.

I’ve been there, time and again. Whenever I finish a first draft of a chapter, I read through it and make it “fresh.” In other words, I look for places where I’ve used blah language and spice up my descriptions. And the quickest, most effective way to make a story vivid and new is to use simile and metaphor.

How to Use Simile and Metaphor

In Storytelling

The definition of simile is “a similarity between like features of two things, on which a comparison may be based: the analogy between the heart and a pump.

A metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in “All the world’s a stage.”

[Note: Remember in grade school, how you were taught to tell simile and metaphor apart? Simile uses “like” and “as”, while metaphor uses “are” and “is.”

Description: Caius’ hair was sleek blonde.

Simile: Caius’ hair was sleek, like corn silk.

Metaphor: Caius had sleek, corn silk hair.]

Basically, similes and metaphors transform ideas into living, breathing pictures. They take one phrase or object and compare it to another phrase or object that is somehow equal. On the surface, the two objects are seemingly unrelated. It’s your job as the writer to make the connection. Working simile and metaphor into your writing takes the three S’s (sight, sound, smell) to the next level.

We use simile and metaphor to:

1. Enliven ordinary language, making it strange and extraordinary. Which is more interesting to read?:

“Rosalie was fashion-conscious since birth.”

“Rosalie popped from her mother’s womb in Prada.”

2. Encourage an audience to actively read and engage in a story. Force your readers to interpret!

“I stepped out of my car into the cold air and snow.”

“I stepped out of my car into an Arctic tundra.”

3. Give maximum meaning with minimal words. Rather than plug out an entire paragraph about how Bella’s dorm was cramped, poorly lit, and uncomfortable, simply say “Bella’s dorm room was like a prison; her floor, the cell block.”

4. Create new meaning for an experience that is emotionally complex or hard to explain. This is especially effective when writing poetry.

“Bumberfans enthusiastically waved their umbrellas, cheering for the next grunge band to take the stage.”

“Bumberfans raised cane umbrellas like a canopy of swords to hail their ermine flannel grunge court.”

5. Signal intelligence. When used properly, nothing screams smart writing like the use of simile and metaphor. Developing metaphor means finding similarities in the dissimilar, which takes imagination.

In Environment

When writing a story, evoking a sense of place is just as important as developing your characters. The story’s environment shapes the plot, the conflict, and the characters. Similarly, using metaphors tied to your story’s environment evokes a certain mood that makes your setting all the more vivid. Is your story set in New York City?

“Jasper fled the room faster than a yellow cab leaving Harlem.”

The environment in which your characters live shapes who they are. Often, characters are an extension of their environment. Take Twilight. While the Cullen family has travelled the world, they settle in remote, cool, and sunless places. Likewise, the Cullen family is stand-offish, cool-skinned, and pale white. They are an extension of their environment—the Olympic Peninsula.

Whatever environment you are writing about, give it as much care and attention as you would a character. Bring it to life. Make a list of character traits for your environment, then find ways to work those traits into simile and metaphor descriptions. Infuse your story with subtle metaphors suited to your story’s setting.

Extended metaphors and environment often go hand-in-hand. (An “extended metaphor”, or “conceit”, sets up a main subject with several subsidiary subjects or comparisons). For example, in Hydraulic Level 5, I use an extended metaphor for Edward and Bella’s “symbiotic” relationship that has roots in their Pacific Northwest environment:

Bella: brown, dirt, ground, roots, home. She has remained in Forks, close to her roots. But she hardens (like dirt) without green growth (Edward) to enrich her.

Edward: green, trees, pines, moss, growth. He has “grown” away from home, but cannot survive without the ground (Bella).

After developing these characterizations, I worked them into my descriptions via metaphor.

HL5 Bella often describes Edward as having “moss eyes”:

“But I lost myself in moss, and pine needles, and rain-soaked grass…everything I cherished about the Pacific Northwest.”

Likewise, HL5 Edward writes that Bella has “brown eyes as deep as ancient earth,” and hair that “was snarled and stringy, like clumps of dirty flower roots.”

Creating an extended environmental metaphor can be as simple as taking the setting of a particular scene and drawing a character description from that setting. In this paragraph, the setting (a garden) and the character (Aunt Alice) are inextricably tied to each other:

“Aunt Alice was lovely…quite possibly the loveliest woman I had ever seen. Her looks, while not dazzling, were suffused with a sober noblesse, as though she had floated down from the hazy, painted gardens of a Monet. The lady had wrapped herself in a filmy oriental shawl, its gold and green flowers warming her skin…Colorless lips…classic chin…keen eyes as black as a baccara rose. Even the dusky circles that rested above her petal cheekbones did not detract from her elegance...“Is the tea too hot?” Aunt Alice asked. Her low voice was barely discernable from the gusts of wind rustling through the leaves. Closing my eyes, I breathed in the faint, sweet scent that had haunted me for the past hour. It was my aunt, not the garden, who smelled of flowers.”

In Themes

Just as simile and metaphor can stem from a story’s environment, they can also be pulled from a story’s theme.

In Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, the book thematically dwells on primal death and poverty in the Ozarks. Throughout the story, Woodrell infuses his descriptions with metaphors of raw meat, wounded animals, and butcher shops. At the climax of the story, the main character is ruthlessly beaten and compared to a dead thing on a hook, keeping with the themes of the story.

A well-crafted story, whether fanfiction or otherwise, makes use of thematic metaphors. JFly’s Sanctuary cleverly uses religious metaphors, from Madonna complexes to mantras, in a story about a priest struggling with his humanity. In WTVOC and Jandco’s Scotch, Gin, and the New Girl, metaphors are used more playfully to evoke the snobbish, booze-saturated culture of their prep school setting. Thus, drinks become thematic extensions of the characters themselves—Edward is “scotch” and Jasper is “gin.”

If done effectively, a story itself can be one big metaphor (we call this an “allegory”) for something else—death, war, religion, society, love, etc. Edgar Allan Poe was a master of allegory, as were Italo Calvino, Jorge Borges, C.S. Lewis, H.G. Wells, and even J.K. Rowling. An entire Riting Skool series could be done on allegory, but to cut to the chase, allegory is not so much about shaping descriptions as metaphor, but shaping the entire plot as metaphor. (Wizard of Oz, anybody?) Allegory is code language. The Greeks loved it. So did the Renaissance writers. Now it’s primarily found in science fiction (which will be what Lit grad students study two hundreds years from now, trust me).

[Extra Credit: Write a paragraph describing someone or something of importance in your life. First think of the basic ideas you wish to describe, then formulate a central metaphor you can use to enhance your description. Remember, metaphors are very visual.]

What NOT to Do with Simile and Metaphor

While metaphors can be oh so much fun to play around with, misusing them turns a good story ridiculous. Here are the major pitfalls that come with using similes and metaphors:


Mixed metaphors are the awkward, often silly use of more than one metaphor at a time. E.g.: “The movie struck a spark that massaged the audience's conscience.” Make sure your metaphors follow the same line of thought. To fix the above, change “massaged” to “burned”.


The key to making simile and metaphor effective is moderation. Creative writing doesn’t need metaphors in every paragraph or even on each page. If used too often, they become distractions. If a metaphor or simile just isn’t working, don’t force it. Make it organic (grown from the situation or the setting). If in doubt, leave it out. That way, when the well-placed metaphor appears as if out of nowhere, your readers will squee.

Similarly, don’t push an extended metaphor too far. Take, for example, the earlier paragraph about the garden and Aunt Alice. If this metaphor had continued on throughout the chapter, it would have become ridiculous overkill. Read your extended metaphor and look for the point where it becomes old. Once it loses its freshness, time to end it.


When similes and metaphors become cliché, they no longer pack the creative punch. We call these “dead metaphors.” They are a part of everyday speech. Can you still use them? If you like, especially when enhancing vernacular dialogue. Just know they won’t have a creative impact on your reader. Examples of dead metaphors:

“Tie up loose ends.”

“Wear my heart on my sleeve.”

“Light as a feather.”

And there you have it! I’m hoping to read an influx of stories employing metaphor. For fun, take a look at Carrie McCarthy’s list of the worst metaphors. [] Now break out a brewski and write a terrible Twilight simile or metaphor. Let’s get them out of our systems!

Gondolier is officially sticking it to the MAN by sharing her wealth of wordcraft knowledge with the likes of fandom. She demonstrates her tremendous skills with every chapter she posts of her wondrous story, Hydraulic Level 5.


  1. I really liked this installment of Riting Skool. I'd like to think that I know a fairly good amount about spicing up my writing, but I definitely found myself learning a thing or two in the section on thematic metaphors. And, like a dork, I'm totally gonna do the extra credit assignment today. I'm already thinking of the most hellish extended metaphor I can use to describe my job. XD

    Thanks so much for writing this and sharing with us your knowledge, Gondolier!

  2. My favorite HL5 simile/ metaphors to date was this:

    "Odd, how I felt like one of her trained Labs as she shook my paw."

    Haha. It still cracks me up. Shook my paw! Gah!

  3. This post is why I can't write anything worth reading. I am just not a flowery, creative, descriptive person. B/c I am boring! Great similes or metaphors can really change the reading of a story-like a secret, or a hint. The Bible is full of metaphors/allegories and that is what makes it interesting literature. There is a surface point, and then something beneath that you have to decipher...and you aren't 100% sure you got it right, but when you do it just comes alive.

  4. I'm not a writer but your articles have really been enhancing my reading experience.

    So much of what you have said in this article seems to apply to The Blessing and The Curse, my current obsession. There the weather is almost a character of itself. It is so evocative, beautifully written and bereft of cliches.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and creativity.


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