Metaphors and similes are words of comparison used to paint a vivid picture, bring prose to life, and often show how clever writers can be. A metaphor says that something is something else. It is a direct comparison: “He’s lion-courageous.” A simile does the same, except the words “as” or “like” are used: “He’s as courageous as a lion.” I like to think of similes as softer comparisons. (He is as courageous as a lion.) In conversation, we often use metaphors and similes that have become clichés, but when writing for publication, it’s a good idea to be original.
Here are a few examples:
ϖ It’s raining cats and dogs/sheet-metal screws. (metaphor)
ϖ My bicycle tire is as flat as a pancake/as a dollar bill. (simile)
ϖ We’ve got to leave for the airport now, so shake a leg/dig yourself out of the sofa. (visually humorous metaphor)
ϖ Her red hair shone like the sunset/a blazing fire. (simile)
ϖ Life’s a bed of roses/one-time shot; don’t miss. (metaphor with bit of sarcasm, maybe)
ϖ The Wicked Witch of the West was as angry as a wet hen/snake on steroids when she saw Dorothy wearing the ruby, red slippers. (simile)
ϖ Ichabod Crane is as thin as a rail/toilet paper. (simile)
ϖ “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” (Springsteen metaphor)
ϖ “I am the vine; you are the branches.” (John 5:15 metaphor)
ϖ “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” (Shakespeare metaphor)
ϖ “Life is like a box of chocolates.” (Forest Gump metaphor)
Remember, metaphors and similes should be used sparingly, otherwise readers become disenchanted or just plain bored. I like to use my favorite dessert, bananas foster, as an example: bananas, butter, and bourbon, sautéed and poured over vanilla ice cream—what’s not to love? (metaphor) If I could be assured those extra calories wouldn’t blow me up like a balloon (simile), I’d eat it everyday, but I’d probably grow tired of it after a week; or a month.
For an excellent use of metaphors, it doesn’t get better than Billy Collins’s “Litany.” This poem is a work of art. So forget for a moment what I said about overusing metaphors and enjoy!
You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...
You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.
It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.
And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.
It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's teacup.
But don't worry. I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.