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.



Writing Hack #5: How to stop meandering and write with purpose

Ever find sometimes when you’re writing that you go off on these tangents, introducing plots, sub-plots, even characters that just occur to you in the moment? Sometimes this meandering bears fruit but the majority of the time when you read it back the story’s gone all over the place. You like what you added but it doesn’t seem to somehow fit with the overall structure. Trust me, I’ve done it a LOT.

I was a meanderer. A serial meanderer. I couldn’t figure out why i couldn’t finish a novel, i’d get halfway through and wonder what the hell had happened to my brilliant idea and overall plot. So i’d abandon it, start another one. Then it happened again. And then a third time… That’s when I decided to do a Masters, to ‘tool up’ and learn some craft skills and techniques that could help me stay on track, become a better writer and FINISH. This tip is probably one of the simplest, but perhaps the most transformational to my writing. The advice was this: ‘write to a climax.’ I took this on a practical level to decide what the end of the scene would be first, even to write that bit first. I’d then go back to the start of the scene and write until I reached that climatic moment….Here’s what I found:

  • My writing was more purposeful: it became tight and felt like it was going somewhere.
  • There was less meandering and more economy. More coherence and more clarity.

When you think about it, it makes sense. everyone has read a page turner at one time or another or watched a film with a ‘cliffhanger’ in it. This isn’t a complex idea to grasp. What is a little harder to get your head around is that ‘writing to a climax’ doesn’t mean you have to write huge climaxes; cars crashing through cocktail bars or the mega twist when the protagonist realises they’e drunk the poison they’d intended for another. Climaxes can also be subtle, gentle. It’s the build up that gives the climatic moment meaning in retrospect, so if you write the final moment first, you are more likely to write a killer build up that maximises the payoff of that moment.

Give it a go! Here’s some prompts

So why not try it? You can easily change the ending anyway if you change your mind! If you’ve not got a novel to try it with right now, try with some of these climatic prompts you can use as an exercise.

  • She set down her keys on the coffee table, unwound the scarf from her head and cast her eyes around the lounge. ‘Well don’t just stand there, go and put the kettle on,’ she said.
  • Arms outstretched as if he were an angel, he waded into the howling sea.
  • ‘I love you too.’
  • Her phone vibrated in her pocket, she stole a glance at the screen and her breath caught in her throat. It was him.
  • Matty popped a chip in his mouth, nodded with obvious satisfaction and then took another. It was as easy as that.
  • ‘I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.’

The last two are taken from my People’s Book Prize shortlisted book Orca Rising, but you can make up any number of stories with those end points. Have fun!


Writing Hack #4 : Making your dialogue 3D using action and internal thought


In last week’s blog post I talked about creating character depth, and the week before that about dialogue attributions. This week’s post combines a bit of both, developing dialogue further and at the same time bringing some subtle character depth. How do we do this? By having your characters active during dialogue, or in other words, have them multi-task.

“I see people in terms of dialogue and I believe that people are their talk.” Roddy Doyle

Life Vs Fiction


In life, things rarely happen one thing at a time; you read the news on your phone while stirring your coffee whilst your stomach grumbles for your lunch. You doodle on a pad while talking on the phone. The contrivance of fiction is to actually tell things one at a time, word by word and sentence by sentence and for good reason. Imagine transcribing onto the page the full sensory experience of a single moment. How would you get across all the thoughts you have in a split second, what you’re hearing, seeing, smelling and touching? As a human you can experience all these things at once, but to accurately convey everything together in a sentence all at once? In the words of Macauley Culkin, ‘I don’t think so.’. 

Using action in dialogue

One way of imitating life and making your dialogue more three dimensional is to use action. Let’s look at an example. First, with no action – just flat dialogue with a bit of scene setting beforehand .

Dialogue, without action

Leah shuffled down onto the floor, took off her hair band and handed it to me. I stretched my hand through it so it ringed my wrist like a bracelet. I gathered up her hair in three bunches.

‘God it’s not fair, why isn’t my hair as nice as this. We use the same conditioner.’

‘Yours is longer,’ Leah said.

‘Maybe I should cut mine too.’

‘Please don’t. Can you imagine it at school, “Ooh look here comes the twins!” Urgh.’

‘Yeah.’ I said. 

‘What do you think about Jamie?”

‘Think about him? I don’t think anything about him.’

‘Well, he’s your friend. Don’t you think he’s handsome, come on you must have noticed?’

‘All done here.’

Dialogue with action.

Now let’s check it out with some action and internal thought, same intro. 

Leah shuffled down onto the floor, took off her hair band and handed it to me. I stretched my hand through it so it ringed my wrist like a bracelet. I gathered up her hair in three bunches.

‘God it’s not fair, why isn’t my hair as nice as this. We use the same conditioner.’ I ran my hands through it, letting her hair fall between my fingers, as light as sifting flour.

‘Yours is longer,’ Leah said, turning the page of a magazine in her lap.

‘Maybe I should cut mine too.’

Leah closed the magazine shut like a book. ‘Please don’t. Can you imagine it at school, “Ooh look here comes the twins!” Urgh.’

‘Yeah.’ I said and weaved her hair neatly through into another plait.

‘What do you think about Jamie?”

It came out of nowhere and for a second i just stopped what I was doing. ”Think about him? I don’t think anything about him.’ 

‘Well, he’s your friend. Don’t you think he’s handsome, come on you must have noticed?’

I gave her hair a tug, slightly too rough and wrapped the hair band around the bottom of the plait. ‘All done here.’

White ringed my wrist where the hairband had been to too tight. 


Notice the difference? We learn more about the characters, their personalities through some subtle, and maybe sometimes not so subtle action and internal thought. If we think back to dialogue attributions in writing hack #2, we can also just use action instead of an attribution. For example.

‘Now let me see,’ Danny scratched the back of his head with the blunt end of the pencil, ‘about two-hundred, maybe two fifty quid.’

Also, it’s important not to take one technique – like using action to animate dialogue – and apply it 100% of the time. Imagine reading a book where every conversation was animated with loads of action, it would feel a little laborious I think.  Interesting writing has a variety of techniques in it throughout. It’s the job and skill of the author to choose which technique and when to apply it. Using action in dialogue is just one weapon to have in your armoury.

Further reading: the wonderful science-fiction writer Nancy Kress has three books on writing and written fluently about this topic in particular. Check em out!

That’s us. Until next time.