Analogies, Metaphors and Similes
From the ancient times when they were told or sung, to the written word of today, stories have entertained and enlightened us.
Much to the dismay of many beginning writers, however, the difference between telling a story and writing one is like a cave drawing to an elaborate painting. Writing is a craft that is honed by learning the techniques and guidelines behind the words and lines. In other words, good writing is as much technical as it is talent.
For instance, the analogy is one of the methods a writer uses from his bag of learned skills. He does this for many reasons. An analogy can help clarify a concept; kindle the reader’s imagination with an idea; or evoke more emotion to a scene.
Two of the frequently used analogies are similes and metaphors. They identify similarities between objects which are normally considered different. For instance, few would consider a lion and a human alike. But a familiar analogy pairs the two when explaining courage or fierceness, i.e., He fights like a lion.
So, what is the difference between a simile and a metaphor, and why should we care?
I’ll answer the last question first. We care because a good craftsman always cares about accuracy. Understanding the difference between the two techniques increases a more appropriate use of them. Which, in turn, always makes improves your writing.
A metaphor is a direct comparison between two subjects. It’s often used to simplify an abstract idea to a more concrete level, which eliminates verbiage otherwise used in explanation. For instance, saying something is music to my ears allows the writer to briefly illustrate an emotion (an abstract idea) with the use of music (a concrete and familiar idea). Think how much easier and clearer the phrase ‘time is money’ is than a long explanation of cost comparisons.
Sometimes metaphors may use illogical or nonsensible subjects for comparison. No one believes it can truly rain cats and dogs, yet a popular saying indicates just that.
A simile is an indirect comparison between two subjects. A reader can easily recognize this device by its use of comparative words, e.g., as, and like. Some examples include: Her sunburned skin was as red as a tomato. He roared like a lion.
A well-placed simile can energize a reader and make your story unforgettable. Who doesn’t remember and enjoy Forrest Gump saying, “Life is like a box of chocolates?”
When using metaphors or similes, the guidelines are simple.
1. Remember, one reason for using an analogy is to explain or clarify. In that case, opt for common, well-known objects your readers are most likely to recognize.
2. A second reason for an analogy is to evoke the reader’s imagination. Such use can enliven a long narrative or description.
3. Learn the optimum time for use. Can you think of a comparison of subjects that would invoke a clearer understanding of a concept than using a lot of words?
4. Always keep an open mind about the similarities and differences between objects. This will aid in creating analogies.
4. Think carefully when creating a metaphor or simile. An ill-used analogy can rain on a reader’s concentration. Look for analogies in your reading. The more you recognize them, the better you will become at using them.
There are some things to avoid when using similes and metaphors:
1. Watch out for inappropriate or potentially offensive analogies. I was once called to question when I compared a person’s skin color to chocolate. I happen to love chocolate—as a candy, drink or color. But at least one reader did not take it as a compliment.
2. Be moderate in the use of analogies. Like all good things, they can be overdone.
Readers are not a captive audience. They can put one book down in minutes and move to another. As a writer, it’s your job to keep them interested. That takes more than just talent. It takes skills, such as using metaphors and similes. Now that you have read this blog, I hope you have learned more about these techniques. Just for fun, here is a test for you. The answers are at the bottom but don’t peek before finishing the test.
1. Identify a simile and a metaphor I used in the blog. (Not counting the examples!)
2. Put an M before the metaphors. Put an S before the similes.
____a. He has a heart of stone.
____b. A king’s wrath is like the growling of a lion. (Proverbs 19:12)
____c. Your smile is like sunshine to my soul.
____d. You are my sunshine.
Answers: M, S, S, M.
I used a simile in the second paragraph, comparing levels of writing to cave drawings and elaborate paintings.
I used a metaphor in number four of things to avoid by saying ‘rain on a reader’s concentration.’