Metaphors and similes can be very effective tools in description but what’s the difference? A simile is comparative, so we say something is like something else such as ‘the windows were like eyes’. A metaphor is saying something is something it isn’t such as ‘the windows were eyes’ (this is also personification which we’ll look at tomorrow). So if we’re using a word to make a comparison usually ‘like’ or ‘as’ then it’s a simile.
Now I could go on about metaphors and similes being poetic techniques and the great… well, metaphoric value of them. But often in such descriptions what is missed is that they work in description because they create emotional reactions in the reader. It’s not about ‘technically brilliant’ wordplay it’s about how it makes your reader feel and how it reflects the world you’ve created. ‘Technically brilliant’ is often used to apply ‘poetic language’ which has a tendency to refer to a very formal style of language but the poetic exists in the everyday. A mechanic character using metaphors based on car parts is as beautiful as metaphors about flowers.
The best metaphors and similes are the ones that fit the way characters think, we can even fill them with swear words if we want. This is where the notion of ‘clichéd’ metaphors and similes becomes problematic. The ones I used earlier about windows being eyes is a good example of what would be considered a clichéd metaphor or simile. They’re considered clichéd because they reappear frequently in fiction but they appear frequently because they’re common ways of thinking. People have often stood outside houses in the growing dark and felt like the house was looking at them, it’s a relatable sensation so it keeps reappearing.
Using common metaphors and similes only becomes problematic when we rely on them rather than trusting our prose and our writing voice. As I keep saying repetition creates emphasis and using the same metaphors and similes emphasises them, we may want this if it’s part of a character’s speech pattern, but we may not want to be using the same descriptions repeatedly in our writing. Going back to the idea of a mechanic using car related metaphors and similes perhaps the light hits the windows in such a way they look like oil spills on concrete.
What the metaphor or simile is about is creating a sense of something but the sense we want to create varies, For instance, the idea of windows as eyes is designed to create an unsettling sense in the reader and convey that the character feels watched. This is something that doesn’t need explaining, it’s simple and to the point. This is another place where it’s easy to go wrong with metaphors and similes, sometimes writers feel the need to make them complex. A good indicator of whether our metaphors work or not is whether they need to be explained. If the meaning of a metaphor needs explaining immediately after the metaphor than it perhaps isn’t working (extended metaphors in fiction related to themes being a different, we’re just discussing those specifically about describing things). If it doesn’t need the explanation then we can cut the explanation and trust our readers will understand it.
The final problem with metaphors and similes is overuse. We can use them as often as we want but if we have, for instance, several metaphors/similes in one paragraph can lead to image overload. One strong image can be highly effective but it can get lost in a gathering of images. Sometimes less is more and sometimes a door is just a door. Not everything needs a metaphor or simile but sometimes we have to write too many to find the right ones.