Writing Hack #6 : Metaphors and Similes. My top 5 tips are like…ah…an octopus with three tentacles cut off?

This week let’s talk metaphor and simile. Both are used as comparators, and when used well can make your writing leap off the page. First, what’s the difference?

A Simile is apparent when you see the word ‘like’ or ‘as’ before the comparison. Here’s a couple of examples from my friend Shaun Baines’ upcoming book Pallbearer. If you’re into gangster noir, you should check out his work, it’s chock-full of great similes.

[Describing a fishing boat] “Where it had once been white, rust pockmarked the paint so it looked like it was infected with boils” (from Pallbearer)

“A vast chandelier hung like a crystal tear drop from the ceiling ” (from Pallbearer)

“A small pool of water had formed under his feet, as if the conversation were melting him.” (from Orca Rising)

Metaphor on the other hand states a comparison, describes something in a way which isn’t literally true for symbolic effect.

‘Her voice was a poem.’ (me)

‘Don’t let the weather make your Russian brain soggy.’ (Pallbearer)

If you’re interested in telling the difference there’s a cool quiz you can do on Grammarly here.

Five Tips for Metaphors and Similes

  1. Metaphors in particular should estrange and then connect with the reader. The goal is to challenge the reader in a surprising and pleasing way that after a moment’s pause immediately fits and makes sense.
  2. Avoid clichés. Say something new. In our stripped down, economic, modern way of writing metaphors and similes are one of the few chances you get to show off your creativity, make it count!
  3. The metaphor or simile should be in keeping with the point of view character’s lexicon and thinking. For example, a violent character might ‘see’ things in an ugly way, so using a metaphor about a beautiful flower might not be appropriate. The Pallbearer example above of the fishing boat’s sides looking like ‘infected boils’ is great because the character noticing this is a mean gangster who sees the world through that sort of lens. It feels entirely apposite.
  4. Don’t overdo it. With M & S, less is more. It’s better to have one killer simile than three goodish ones which dilute the impact. In my opinion, more than one a page is too much.
  5. Here’s a tip I heard my favourite writer David Mitchell share at a talk he gave. When asked how and why his metaphors and similes were so damn good, he said that when he finished his draft of a novel he’d go through the manuscript and give a score out of five to every simile and metaphor. If it scored a three or under, he binned it. Get harsh!

That’s me, now check out this little dude.