Practice in Using Metaphors and Similes to Enrich Our Writing

'Metaphors and similes are like raisins in spice cake'*

(H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Continued from part one

Similes and metaphors can be used to convey ideas as well as offer striking images. Consider the simile in the first sentence below and the extended metaphor in the second:

Her mind was like a balloon with static cling, attracting random ideas as they floated by.
(Jonathan Franzen, Purity. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015)

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.
(Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories. New Directions, 1945)

Metaphors and similes can not only make our writing more interesting but also help us think more carefully about our subjects. Put another way, metaphors and similes aren't just fanciful expressions or pretty ornaments; they are ways of thinking.

So how do we begin to create metaphors and similes? For one thing, we should be ready to play with language and ideas. A comparison like the following, for example, might appear in an early draft of an essay:

Laura sang like an old cat.

As we revise our draft, we might try adding more details to the comparison to make it more precise and interesting:

When Laura sang, she sounded like a cat sliding down a chalkboard.

Be alert to the ways in which other writers use similes and metaphors in their work. (Note, in particular, the essays by E. B. White and Virginia Woolf in our Essay Samplers.) Then, as you revise your own paragraphs and essays, see if you can make your descriptions more vivid and your ideas clearer by creating original similes and metaphors.

Practice Using Similes and Metaphors

Here's an exercise that will give you some practice in creating figurative comparisons. For each of the statements below, make up a simile or a metaphor that helps to explain each statement and make it more vivid. If several ideas come to you, jot them all down. When you're done, compare your response to the first sentence with the sample comparisons at the end of the exercise.

  1. George has been working at the same automobile factory six days a week, ten hours a day, for the past twelve years.
    (Use a simile or a metaphor to show how worn out George was feeling.)
  2. Katie had been working all day in the summer sun.
    (Use a simile or a metaphor to show how hot and tired Katie was feeling.)
  3. This is Kim Su's first day at college, and she is in the middle of a chaotic morning registration session.
    (Use a simile or a metaphor to show either how confused Kim feels or how chaotic the entire session is.)
  4. Victor spent his entire summer vacation watching quiz shows and soap operas on television.
    (Use a simile or a metaphor to describe the state of Victor's mind by the end of his vacation.)
  5. After all the troubles of the past few weeks, Sandy felt peaceful at last.
    (Use a simile or a metaphor to describe how peaceful or relieved Sandy was feeling.)


Sample Responses to Sentence #1
a. George felt as worn out as the elbows on his work shirt.
b. George felt as worn out as his deeply scuffed work boots.
c. George felt worn out, like an old punching bag in a neighbor's garage.
d. George felt as worn out as the rusted Impala that carried him to work every day.
e. George felt as worn out as an old joke that was never very funny in the first place.

f. George felt worn out and useless--just another broken fan belt, a burst radiator hose, a stripped wing nut, a discharged battery.

* "Metaphors and similes are like raisins in spice cake: they add surprise, interest, and variation when used in the right amount, but, if overdone, the eaters (or readers) may be so distracted by them that they wish to start picking them out with a fork and leaving them by the side of the plate."
(Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren, Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers. Pearson/Longman, 2005)

More About Figurative Comparisons