Friday Five – Metaphorically Speaking

Friday Five –Metaphors and Similies

Friday Five –Metaphors and Similies

This week, I welcome Nola Passmore to Friday Five.

Which of the following sounds better?

‘Nell woke when the phone rang at 3:30 am.  She reached out her hand to pick up the receiver.’


‘Captured in a moon shadow grotesquely magnified against a white wall, the hand is a tarantula suspended above a ringing phone.’ (From The Memory Stones by Kate O’Riordan).

I think you’ll agree that the second example adds a lot more punch.  One of the reasons is that the author uses an intriguing metaphor.  We can see the tarantula-like hand reaching out to grab the phone.

Metaphors and similes help us visualise a scene by comparing one thing to another. The difference is that similes typically include words such as ‘as’ or ‘like’ (she’s as quiet as a mouse), while metaphors state that one thing is another (she is a mouse).  Here are some tips for using metaphors and similes in your work.

  1. Avoid clichés. Try thinking of something fresh.  Instead of saying an object is ‘as white as snow’, think of other things that are white and use something less common (e.g. milk, pearls, clouds, whipped cream, photocopy paper, bridal gown).
  1. Brainstorm ideas. Your first idea will seldom be your best.  Come up with as many possibilities as you can without censoring them.  Then pick the best one.
  1. Change perspective. Don’t just look at obvious similarities between two things.  Try looking at it from different angles.  I attended a workshop in which poet Cameron Semmens asked us what the moon is like.  Most people thought of round objects like a ball or a pizza.  He then asked us to think of different phases of the moon (e.g. crescent moon, half-moon) or to consider what the moon looks like at different times of the day or with different types of sky as a background.  The variety of examples people came up with was amazing.
  1. Match the mood. Ensure that any similes or metaphors correspond to the mood of the piece you’re writing (e.g. amusing metaphors for a funny article, dramatic similes for a serious scene).  Your protagonist’s eyes might be ‘so bloodshot they look like a Google map of Mars’, but that humorous description may ruin your suspenseful scene.  Save it for later and write something else.
  1. Less is more. Metaphors and similes have a greater effect if used sparingly.  You want your reader to linger over your beautiful words or funny analogies rather than being jarred out of the story.  This is especially true for action-packed scenes.  A well-placed metaphor or simile can heighten the action, but too many slow it down.

Writing fresh metaphors and similes isn’t easy.  However, you’ll get better with practice.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d better dig out my latest manuscript and follow my own advice.

nolapassmore-200Nola Passmore is a freelance writer who has had more than 140 short pieces published, including devotionals, true stories, magazine articles, academic papers, poetry and short fiction.  She loves sharing what God has done in her life and encouraging others to do the same.  She and her husband Tim have their own freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish.  You can find her weekly writing tips blog at their website:

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  1. Great article although the spider reference was creepy! Well done!

    • Thanks for your feedback, Susan. And yes, that tarantula reference is pretty creepy. That was in the opening paragraph of her book and it certainly created a visual impression for me 🙂 Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Hi Nola – some great advice here. Metaphors pack and punch and I love the tip about using them sparingly – like highlights in a picture. That said, I found the second example quite gaudy. Unless the act of reaching for the phone is somehow a significant point of focus (and in the book quoted it might well be), I’d opt for the plain language of the first example. In the first example it’s who’s on the line and what they have to say at that hour that seems important. In the second, it’s the hand hanging ominously over the phone (perhaps reluctant to pick it up) that warrants the close and colourful attention to detail.

    • Thanks James. That’s a good point. The metaphor does have to match the mood or perhaps tell us something about the character or the situation. Otherwise it could interfere with the main point and slow the story down. For one of the Tabor courses, I was going to read a novel by a famous Australian author (who shall remain nameless). I got up to about p. 90 and ended up abandoning it and choosing something else. The main reason was that the author just had too much flowery language, with a metaphor or simile in almost every paragraph. By the time I got to p. 90, I thought ‘You’re a very talented writer with a great grasp of the English language, but I’m just not enjoying it’. I think sometimes less is definitely more. Thanks for your feedback.

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