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Spicing Up a Story With Similes & Metaphors

Thursday, December 6, 2012


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

This fall I've been teaching a writing class for elementary students. I've started the year by introducing the students to some of the basic tools that every writer needs to have in his or her writer tool bag. I actually bring a bag filled with various items that represent those different tools.

One of the tools I include in my bag is a bottle of cooking spices, because as writers we want to find ways to spice up our stories.

Obviously there are countless ways to add seasoning and flavor to our stories, but there are three easy-to-use spices that I've taught my students this fall: similes, metaphors, and personification.

Here are the simplified definitions:

Simile: Compares two unlike things using the words like or as.

Metaphor: Compares two unlike things NOT using the words like or as. Uses is or was.

Personification: Giving human qualities to non-human things (a specific type of metaphor)

I used all three of the spices in the opening paragraphs of Chapter 17 of my latest release, Unending Devotion:

"The stiff branches above Lily clattered like dry bones (simile) . . . In the blackness of the early morning, the pale light from the tavern windows illuminated the barren, gnarled limbs. They reached toward her like claws of a devilish monster. She had no doubt they would snatch her and devour her if they could (personification) . . . Every shadow, every dark moving shape was a demon (metaphor). She heard the flap of their thin translucent wings . . ."

As we think about using similes, metaphors, and personification to spice up our writing, here are several things to keep in mind:

1. A little spice can go a long way. Think about when you're making a pot of chili. You only need a little bit of chili pepper to make the soup hot. A tablespoon or two would be plenty as opposed to an entire cup.

And the same is true with our stories. One or two well-places similes and metaphors can add just the right flavor to a chapter. But too many can overpower the rest of the story, drowning out all of the other delicious flavors.

Likewise, similes and metaphors that are too flamboyant or forced can also distract. In fact, in the rewrites I'm currently working on for my book releasing next fall, my editor told me to rework or cut some of my "unnatural" sounding similes.

2. Avoid generic (clichéd) seasoning. If it sounds even remotely clichéd, then it probably is: "The stars winked at her" or "the sun smiled down on him" or "he was as happy as a lark." Obviously, we should strive to be as original as possible in our similes and metaphors and stay far away from anything thing that stinks of cliché.

I have the most difficulty with this when I'm using personification of emotions. It's all too easy to use the tried and true, "Her her heart swelled with love" or "worry trickled through him." It's much more challenging (but rewarding) to think of original ways to personify our characters' thoughts and feelings.

3. Different people require different spices. We want to try to stay true to our POV (point-of-view) character even when we're using similes and metaphors, similar to what we would try to do when crafting our dialogue and descriptions.

Never add similes and metaphors that wouldn't flow naturally from our characters. For example, in Unending Devotion, some of my hero's similes have to do with math, money, or lumbering, since those are the things that are important to him. I wouldn't have the hero comparing anything to flowers and rainbows and honey as a heroine might.

4. Use the spice to enhance the setting or mood. Since I write historicals, I sometimes put in similes or metaphors that bring out something unique to the historical setting. I look around the stage that's unfolding and find interesting things to spotlight, objects or historical tidbits that will enhance the scene.

Or I use similes and metaphors to help create the mood of a scene. In the example I quoted earlier from Unending Devotion, the heroine is about to embark on a dangerous rescue mission, attempting to free her lost sister who is enslaved in a brothel. Through strategic similes, metaphors, and description, I hoped to give the feeling of fear, impending doom, and danger.

What about you? Do you spice up your stories with similes, metaphors, and personification? What are some other tips or cautions you would issue in regard to using them?

13 comments:

  1. Similes and metaphors don't come easily to me. I find that they come to me during the editing process, rather than during the feverish writing of the first draft. But when they do come, they add such dimension to the writing. Great post.

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    1. Hi Dina,

      Sometimes they seem to flow naturally for me. Other times I have to stop and think about them and be a little more conscious about shaping them. But I agree, the editing is a good time to pay attention to them. In fact, that's something I check for when going through my editing checklist. :-)

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    2. Jody, can you share your editing checklist with us?

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    3. Jenni,

      Thanks for the idea! I'll consider it for a future blog post! :-)

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  2. Similes and metaphors are techniques I've been trying to incorporate more of in my writing lately but we need to be careful not to overdue it. I've read books where its overdone and it does truly distract from the story. I think no more than 1 or 2 in a chapter, depending on your style and the type of story you are writing.

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    1. Hi Shelly,

      Yes, too much spice can be distracting, even unpalatable. We definitely don't want to take the reader out of the story because we're distracting them with our similes and metaphors. Rather, the spice should enhance what's already there and hopefully blend in so that the reader doesn't notice them. :-)

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  3. This is an AWESOME breakdown. Thank you, Jody! It's funny I was watching some real crime TV show a few weeks ago and the narrator often shared similes. I couldn't tell if it was the narrator's voice or how often he mentioned a comparison that was overdoing it. Maybe both. But it instantly reminded me not to over do it!

    Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Martha! I love really good similes. The word-lover in me just eats them up. But, I think because of that I really have to be careful not to over-do them too! :-)

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  4. It may seem obvious, but since my WIP is set in the 1830s, my similes and metaphors need to be relevant to that time period. Researching the social history of this era has really helped me. The Reshaping of Everyday Life by Jack Larkin has been a great resource.

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  5. Good post, Jody. After almost 20 novels I find I use these figures f speech almost automatically. In the editing process I weed out 90 per cent of them. I do think one temptation for new authors is to try too hard to incorporate them and it distracts from the storytelling.

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  6. I love that you teach writing classes to grade school students! I wish I'd had that type of influence when I was that age. But we all get the lessons we need when we need them. I agree with you that a little spice goes a long way. In first drafts I tend to over use similies, and need to work in metaphors during revisions. Great post!

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  7. There is, I suppose, a 'seasoning' for all things. The artist knows the difference between a recipe and what's required. Craft and art are distinct. An artist knows the rules and knows when to violate them. Shakespeare recognized a mixed metaphor, I am sure. But he knew when "to take arms against a sea of troubles" anyway. The proof is in the taste; whether it be in a pudding or a novel.

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