Mar 10, 2010

It's Like... You Know.

Happy as...
Imagery is essential to good fiction writing and effective descriptions. As I re-read Dog Show Detective for the umpteenth time, I notice I have barely any similes or metaphors, they don't come naturally to me and when I do attempt them they are usually cliché (as above).

This week I needed to research ways to use similes and metaphors. Similes basically say something is like another whereas metaphors will describe the subject as being another thing.

A simile compares your subject to anything you want to use to strengthen a descriptive point. For example, we could say Lucille Ball's hair was red, or (a line that was used in her TV show) like looking at a beautiful sunrise through bloodshot eyes.

You can also use simile to clarify the ambiguous or unfamiliar. An example used by Grammar Girl is "...a podcast is like a daily radio show that gets delivered to your iPod, instead of over the radio." Even if you were explaining this to an old lady who'd never heard of podcasts, she would probably understand.
Perhaps you're only trying to compare one or two aspects of your subjects such as the colour or speed, which is why you would opt for a simile over a metaphor.

For example I might make this simile:
Nanna was as white as the bleached hospital sheets she lay on. When I looked in her eyes I could see the life flickering weakly like the old fluorescent bulb above us, struggling not to go out forever.
Now if I tried to make it a metaphor:
Nanna was the bleached hospital sheets... what? She's flat and stiff and scratchy? You can fold her? The problem here is sheets provide other images and attributes. You could say Nanna's skin was snow, cold and white, it just needs the clarification on the end.

Where possible, I like metaphors. Mainly because they are more direct than similes. They can also help you replace adjectives and adverbs.

The most common problem with metaphors is using clichés like it's raining cats and dogs or people drowning in each other's eyes. These overused metaphors rip me out of a story I'm reading because it's like seeing the strings on puppets, I can't be lost when my mind is adding 'blah blah bleh' after these clichés. They could be used effectively as dialogue for a character that would use a lot of trite expressions.

Another problem is when metaphors are mixed in a sentence or paragraph and provide conflicting or confusing comparisons.

For example: I could see by her expression she was a crazed dog with a chip on her shoulder. I tried to leave the shop but she drove at me like an angry bull. There are too many different images here that do not organically sit together well. The safest route is to keep metaphors simple, just one comparison for a passage, however, clever writers can continue with a metaphor and keep the flow cohesive. Take this example from English Essential (Mem Fox & Lyn Wilkinson): Writing is a bumpy road, full of obstacles, potholes and loose stones. ...If you can avoid these problem areas your writing stands a better chance of reaching its destination without being wrecked on the way.

So how do we master the extended metaphor?
In Manuscript Makeover, Elizabeth Lyon suggests:
  • Use riff-writing (explained in an earlier post) to explore the connections that come naturally when you write without restriction.
  • Look up your word in a dictionary and thesaurus to expand your 'language' on it.
  • Consider your character from different angles, not just what you 'see'. Think about the geographical location, era, setting, and emotions. 
My plan will be to start a section in my writer's notebook for cool metaphors and similes. I'll copy down ones I find in other narratives that work well and try to add some of my own. If you want to build up a bank of metaphors/similes try doing some writing exercises finding metaphors for commonly used adjectives and adverbs. For example, find a metaphor/simile for fast, slow, happy, evil, white, black, red and whatever else you can think of.

Some other links for metaphors/similes:
Writer's Community

 Finally, a big thanks to Shannon at Book Dreaming for passing on this award to me:
Now I apparently have to share 10 things that no one else knows. I'm afraid there is nothing I know that most people aren't already clued in on. But maybe these aren't well known:
  1. I lied when I was 9 and pretended to my class that I was moving interstate. They threw me a going away party and it took about two weeks for them to find out I was lying. It was horrible and I ALWAYS try to tell the truth now.
  2. 1950's movies are my favourite, everyone seemed so clean.
  3. Chooks can sometimes produce chickens without a rooster. True.
  4. Kenny Rogers IS cool. 
  5. I can touch the tip of my nose with my tongue, a fact discovered in primary school during a 'whose got the longest tongue competition' held by the teacher (I can not remember WHY?).
  6. I have stuck my hands in to separate fighting dogs at off-leash parks, no fear at all, but am terrified when clipping the fur off a Persian cat and it's tail starts wagging.
  7. It always takes me about five goes to pronounce 'onomatopoeia' for my poetry classes.
  8. I do not multi-task, I 'focus-task'.
  9. I don't know how a car works, you magically turn a key and then it runs.
  10. I generally suck at similes and metaphors
I gleefully pass this award onto:
The Chocolate Chip Waffle (for being my most recent follower)


  1. Great post, Charm! Shame I've already finished poetry, or I'd SOO be referring back to this :D hehe.

    Thanks so mcuh for the award - you're too kind :o)

  2. I've only recently become better at using metaphors and similes. It doesn't come natural to me either. think you put some wonderful examples of bad metaphors in the blog.

    Also, loved #1 of your award answers...OMG, I can't believe you did that!


  3. Interesting post and congratulations on your award. It's always fun to learn new things about a fellow blogger.

  4. I love your #4 (Kenny Rogers IS cool).

    While I don't like country music much, I grew up pretending I was a gambler who knew when to hold 'em. That song is part of the soundtrack of my youth. And I forever love Kenny (and my mom) for that.

    Shannon @ Book Dreaming is spot on for giving you this award (I love Shannon!). And thanks for giving me the award!! I'm honored!

  5. Your post today is like a river of knowledge...just had to do it. Thanks for the fun list. Kenny Rogers. I was in love with him when I was 13.

  6. Yes! Nothing scarier than an angry cat haha. Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog :o)

  7. Thanks fellow blogger friends! So glad to see my Kenny admission hasn't scared anyone off. :-)