Metaphor? What For?

writer, poet, narrator, artist

Metaphor? What For?

How do you recognise good writing? It’s clean, well thought out, and well edited.

Now, great writing. That’s another story. Great writing lives and breathes. It grabs you by the neck and drags you down the page.

But how can you make a piece of writing truly stand out?

The important thing to remember is that the writer is not a television, just as the artist is not a camera. Both the writer and artist are there to convey what is underneath, rather than on the surface. To engage not the eye but the imagination, the inner eye. (Goss, 2012)

A fresh and accurate simile or metaphor can characterise both the object and the character looking at it. More than just showing us the world through their eyes, you can take us into their mind and show us how they perceive and interpret their surroundings–the frame against which they reference their environment.


Let’s figure out what’s what, first.

A simile compares two unlike things. It’s often introduced by as or like.

A bailiff moved to the front of the court and put his hands by his sides in the overly dramatic way reminiscent of an opera singer about to start an aria.

My friend Andrew was kind enough to lend me an example. He has a way of finding the most unusual similes, but they’re always absolutely perfect for the voice of his characters. In this case, it says as much about the POV c as it does about the bailiff.

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase with a different literal meaning is applied to suggest a similarity or analogy.

They drove our economy into a ditch. (Obama, 2010)

This metaphor is a perfect example of how something as simple as a well-placed metaphorical verb can add an extra layer of meaning to your sentence.


Metaphor and simile can add spice to your writing but, like nutmeg, it can have an adverse effect when overused, or when the nutmeg isn’t fresh.

Don’t get carried away when writing metaphors or similes.

I was guilty of it only recently.

A gorgeous woman sat in my waiting room, in the middle of a row of stark white formica chairs, an orchid amid plastic flowers.

Her gaze flitted across the floor, a trapped bird trying to escape.

Comparing one woman both to a flower and a bird in the space of three paragraphs is a bit much, so I ended up picking the one I liked best.

By mixing your metaphors like that, you’ll overload the reader with a succession of images, and only succeed in confusing them.

There is a time and place for everything. Including metaphorical language. Use it deliberately, for maximum effect.

Think of it this way.

If your mother always shouts, you roll your eyes and just keep on keeping on. Man, can that woman nag.

But imagine a mother who never raises her voice above a whisper, forcing you to be silent to make out what she says. If she raises her voice, she’ll stop you in your tracks. No matter what you’re up to.

Metaphorical language works the same way. Shout it out at every opportunity, and it will lose power.


Use fresh nutmeg: choose an image or concept we haven’t seen before.

When I read a story, and come across something like “Fear lent my feet wings,” I get the feeling that I’ve seen it, or something like it, before. This is the last thing you want to do to a reader.

The use of clichés in your prose creates the sense that we’ve already read this. And if we’ve already read this, will the author still be able to surprise us?

But there’s more to this whole metaphorical language thing. Remember Andrew?

While I’m a bit of a minimalist most of the time, he writes delightfully convoluted sentences. Prosy labyrinths that you explore and savour, one turn at a time.

I often read his work and think, “I wish I could do that.”

A remark Andrew often gets from our mutual critique partners, however, is that he tends to be telly.


Wait. Metaphors are telly?

Well, everything can be telly. In this case the fix was fairly easy. Let’s have another look.

A bailiff moved to the front of the court and put his hands by his sides in the overly dramatic way reminiscent of an opera singer about to start an aria.

Reminiscent is a filter–basically a shortcut to saying reminded me of…

So we cut it. In a limited POV, we know we’re reading the character’s thoughts, so there’s no need to emphasise that.

A bailiff moved to the front of the court and put his hands by his sides in the overly dramatic way of an opera singer about to start an aria.

All we did was remove one word. But it immediately felt less telly.


So, be fresh, be original, and try not to be telly. Got it.

Not so fast.

I’m a great fan of Sol Stein’s. He–and I–believes that a great writer places his words with precision.

“Inaccurate similes and metaphors have the effect of deflecting the reader’s attention from the story to the words on the page.” (Stein, p. 265)

Every single word matters. It has to. And the same thing goes for every image you insert into the piece.

Be accurate, and whatever you do, try not to mix your metaphors.

After all, a bird in the hand is worth a thousand words.


Works cited:

Goss, Theodora. “Long Sentences.” 12 Jan. 2012,

Office of the Press Secretary. “Remarks by the President at Laborfest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.” The White House, President Barack Obama, 6 Sept. 2010,

Stein, Sol. Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies (p. 265). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

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One Response

  1. R. Jean Bell says:

    This article is as packed with great advice as an American with desserts at an all-you-can-eat sundae bar!

    Darn it. Now I want a hot fudge sundae.

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