In the second installment in this blog series (read the first post here), we’re going to look at another secret that is under-used in all but the best prose: the use of similes and metaphors. They create dynamic word pictures, imaginative storyscapes, and draw the reader into the story.
Before we start, a quick grammar lesson: A simile is a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid. “He bolted for the door like a convict escaping prison.”
Conversely, a metaphor is a figure-of-speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. “She was a block of ice; no emotion, no warmth.”
In short: Similes use the phrase, “Like a—” and metaphors don’t.
Similes and metaphors are indispensable for engaging fiction. They give life to stories, connect your heart to the characters, and—most importantly—make your prose jump off the page. If you were to surgically remove similes (and metaphors) from your favorite novel, it would be like sucking the juice from an orange—all pulp, no flavor.
Incidentally, that last sentence contained both a simile and a metaphor to get the point across, showing how even a nonfiction blog post benefits from them.
Here’s the problem: similes don’t usually pop up in your writing by themselves. It takes conscious effort to use them, and even more energy to think of good ones.
So here are some ways to help you inject instant flavor in your prose using similes and metaphors:
Stop using so many adjectives!
I know—it’s soooo satisfying to use those glittering, sparkling, glistening, adjectives and sprinkle them everywhere.
However, adjectives, while useful and necessary, aren’t always the best option.
Adjectives don’t always evoke an image in our mind. Many times, our eyes skim over the adjectives in search of the action—the verb. That’s why stories over-saturated with adjectives feel wordy. Too many adjectives and too few verbs.
Similes, on the other hand, compare one experience to another. You may not know what a leak in a space capsule sounds like, but you know the sound a vacuum makes when it sucks up a lego.
Similes give your reader a connection to the story’s events by relating them to common experiences. Instead of making the reader feel like an outsider when you describe the beauty of Paris with a stream of lofty adjectives, let your reader experience it with you by comparing Paris to an ordinary small town—the ways it is different and the ways it is the same.
Every opportunity you have to give the reader something to compare the story to, it sparks a billion feelings and images in their mind of places they’ve actually seen, felt, heard. Your story will feel as real as one of their own childhood memories.
Use Metaphorical Verbs
Verbs are the pistons of your story engine. Like the cylinders under the hood of your car, each verb pushes the reader to the next sentence, where the following verb fires off and propels the reader onward again. If your prose is stalling, you either have few verbs or none at all.
That last paragraph employed what I call metaphorical verbs. These verbs are turbo fuel for your prose—super-charged, explosive, powerful. We discussed the importance of power verbs in the last post, but now let’s examine the use of deliberate metaphors.
Compare these two sentences:
A dense cloud covered the moon.
A dense cloud blotted out the moon.
Subtle but effective. The cloud didn’t actually blot out the moon—to blot something out is to literally soak it up until it is gone, like blotting ink from a page. The cloud figuratively had this effect on the moon, but not literally.
Using verbs this way gives a deeper sense of realism—not to mention accuracy—to your prose.
If a weeping character is said to “melt,” that’s a metaphor. We know what melting ice does—it collapses while dripping water everywhere, which is precisely what a person in grief may do. It describes all of that in a single word.
Or if a corporate project at work gets “axed” by leadership, it doesn’t mean the boss literally jumped onto the desk, grabbed a hatchet and started chopping the project binder into little tiny pieces. Though it’s not literal, that’s what it may feel like to the person who developed the project.
Sometimes this means inventing a new word by converting a noun into a verb. If you say that a husky, lumbering character “trucks” down the road, you are actually taking a noun, “truck,” and using it to describe the way such a vehicle moves by using it as a verb. You could say the person “ran down the road like a truck,” but converting the word into a verb saves you six words and conveys the same meaning.
It’s advantageous to use the fewest amount of words necessary in your writing, which is why metaphorical verbs are so potent!
I want to try something new in this post by giving you the chance to try this out!
In the comments section below, invent a new metaphorical verb by converting a noun into an action word, as we saw with the word “truck,” or use a simile to describe the action.
To give you some subject matter to describe, here is a list of inspiration:
A seedy character going into a dark alley
A woman frantically searching through her purse
A fighter jet giving chase to another plane
A sarcastic character using body language to communicate disgust
A speeding car going off the edge of the highway into a ravine
There’s no right or wrong way to answer. Just fire up your imagination and write a short paragraph, using your new metaphor to describe the action as succinctly as possible. I’ll stick around to comment on your results and post some of my own!