How to Use Common Metaphors and Similes

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Metaphors and similes are both what's called figurative language, or figures of speech. Metaphors and similes are literary devices used to compare one thing to another. They add understanding, dimension, and vividness to writing.

Metaphors say straight up that one thing is another ("love is a flame"), deeply connecting one to the other. Similes compare one thing to another using the word "like" or "as" ("slower than molasses in January), and often are colorful sayings that are indigenous to certain regions of the country.

The South is known for its abundance of memorable similes.

Metaphors and similes also cut to the chase and say a lot in a few words. For example, rather than saying "Bob is Jane's old boyfriend; they were very tight for a while, and I'm not quite sure whether there's still an attraction there," you can use the metaphor "Bob is Jane's old flame." An old flame, of course, is an old love that may or may not still burn hot.

Metaphors and similes are used extensively in poetry. They are also a basic tool used in most forms of fiction writing. By comparing one thing to another, the writer can evoke a mood or memory, help the reader to make connections, establish a theme, and add interest and color to the writing. These descriptions of a sunset evoke completely different responses:

  • No metaphor or simile: The sun was setting. The sky turned red. Then darkness fell.
  • Both metaphor and simile: The sunset was like a glorious conflagration, blazing with fabulous colors but producing no warmth. 
  • Metaphor: The sun dipped below the horizon, the last gasp of beauty before the death of the day. 

Metaphors and Similes in Everyday Speech

While many writers use figurative language in descriptions, it can be equally effective to put metaphorical language into characters' dialogue. Metaphors and similes are regularly used in the language people use to talk to each other, so characters need not be poets to believably use figurative language.

Some metaphors and similes are used so frequently they are sometimes categorized as cliches. Some examples:

  • Fit as a fiddle
  • Happy as a clam
  • She is an old flame
  • Dull as dishwater
  • Sharp as a tack
  • Silent as the grave
  • Time is money
  • He is a pig
  • You are my sunshine

Using Common Metaphors and Similes in Your Fiction

It is certainly easy to add metaphors and similes to fiction, and it's very often a good idea. But when and how you should use this language to the best effect is a question well worth asking. A cliched or mixed metaphor can sink a perfectly good story.

Some best practices for adding common examples of metaphors and similes to your fiction:

  • Use sparingly; too much figurative language can become annoying or even difficult to understand.
  • Choose only expressions that fit your narrative voice and characters' personalities.
  • Avoid mixing metaphors unless you actively want to sound ridiculous -- "I smell a rat, and I will nip him in the bud!"
  • Choose figurative language carefully so that it communicates your tone and message. 
  • Remember that common metaphors and similes change over time, so if you want your character to sound old, young, stodgy or hip,  you will have to select figures of speech that reflect the character's age and style. It's unlikely that a hipster would say he is "fit as a fiddle," though he might call his roommate a pig.
  • if you are writing about a particular region, use metaphors and similes that are characteristic of that area to maintain verisimilitude