Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

Shall I Compare Thee? Making Effective Use of Metaphor and Simile

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by Kristen Coros

This article was first featured on the now-defunct Sowing the Seeds blog hosted by Vine Leaves Literary Journal

A waterfall of commuters plunging down the subway steps. Clouds appearing like wadded-up tissues after a rain. The jack-o’-lantern look of an apartment block by night.

Images are crucial to fiction—hence the importance of detail and of show, don’t tell. Another mode through which we can persuade and convince our reader using word-images is comparison, two main forms of which are metaphor and simile.

Quick review of what many of us learned in school: a simile is a comparison filtered through the words like or as (as in Nabokov’s “Elderly American ladies learning on their canes listed towards me like towers of Pisa”), while a metaphor is a suggestion that something is something else (from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: “After a winter’s gestation in its eggshell of ice, the valley had beaked its way out into the open, moist and yellow”).

Which one we choose to employ (should I write that his tangled curls were a bramble atop his head or like a bramble atop his head?) may depend on how big of a stretch the comparison is, but also on the tone of our writing. If, like Salman Rushdie’s, our writing generally demands more suspension of disbelief, we might be comfortable saying that a valley is a hatching bird, for example, whereas a more understated tone or piece might urge us to instead employ a simile in this case.

Whether you tend towards the audacious metaphor or the quietly apt simile, here are some further tips to help ensure your comparisons run like a Swiss watch, instead of stalling like the engine on your junky first car.

To begin with, we want to avoid clichés (like the plague!). This is often difficult to do, because clichés are words and images so often associated with each other that they tend to spring to mind like conjoined twins as we are composing. Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, offers this sage advice: “If you sense—and you may—that the moment calls for the special intensity of metaphor, you may have to sift through a whole stock of clichés that come readily to mind.”

While we love comparisons that feel fresh and surprising, that make us think, “Hm, I’d never considered that a mouthful of teeth could be like a graveyard, but now that you mention it…” caution is needed to avoid going too far in the name of originality, and offering an image that is too far-fetched to be easily imagined. However, if a comparison is complicated but truly apt (you’re determined that you can show the reader exactly how a love affair is like a lawnmower) the comparison may need to be developed further, becoming a conceit or extended metaphor.

Mixed metaphors should also be avoided. These are comparisons that confuse different images or elements, as in “She turned a blind eye to everything he was saying.” (If the metaphors being mixed are both clichés, you might end up with something like “Wake up and smell the coffee on the wall.”) Another thing to watch out for is the jarring effect created by putting two contradicting comparisons next to each other: if in one sentence a woman is compared to a flower and in the next, a she-wolf, the reader’s mental image of her is apt to become muddled.

What comparisons ideally should do is resonate in some abstract sense. While they often start with our observation that two things look or feel alike, the best metaphors and similes suggest some abstract quality shared by the two things. For example, when Alice Munro writes in “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” that an elderly female character’s hair was “light as milkweed fluff,” we not only get some sense of what she looks like, but we begin to imagine this person as delicate-seeming, ethereal. Conversely, when David Foster Wallace tells us, in Infinite Jest, “the sun is a hammer,” we understand that the sunshine does not feel gentle and life-giving, but pounding, brutal, assaultive. In this way, metaphor and simile can echo thematic concerns.

A good practice for generating unique and striking comparisons—which, like all writing devices, are best used in moderation—is to make a list. If you know you want to highlight something by comparing it to something else, it can be helpful to brainstorm (pretending, if it helps, that Don Draper is in his office awaiting your best ideas). Images will spawn other images. Once you’ve come up with as many candidates as possible, eliminate those that are clichéd, then select one that feels surprising and convincing, as well as accurate, like an arrow shot straight into the bull’s eye of your story.

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