Spicing Up a Story With Similes & Metaphors

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Have you ever read a book that felt somewhat bland? Maybe it was a good plot with well-developed characters, but for some reason it just didn't grab you.

There may be many reasons why a book fails to "wow" us. But one reason might be a lack of originality, freshness, and color to our writing style. The writer's voice is missing a unique spiciness.

Obviously there are countless ways to add seasoning and flavor to our stories, but there are three easy-to-use spices: 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 book, 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-placed 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 my editor has had me rework or cut some of my "unnatural" sounding similes when I try to add too many.

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?

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