Bad writing habitsBasics of writing

The use and abuse of similes and metaphors

From Rick:

I recently read a couple of stories wherein the authors used a number of similes and metaphors that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.

What are similes and metaphors? A simile is a comparison that uses like or as in the description. A few examples, some of which are rather cliché will demonstrate.

He charged me like a raging bull.
She was pretty as a picture.
His eyes twinkled like stars.
He throws like a girl.

as light as a feather.
as clear as a bell
as deaf as a post
as clear as crystal
as blind as a bat

An author friend used a good, fresh simile in a novel he’s working on: “She was as daunting as a Rubik’s cube.”

“The very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric.” (Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

Metaphors are also comparisons, but they don’t use a connective comparison word (like, as) that the simile does. In more technical terms, a metaphor is an implied comparison of two things that are not related to each other and that often are figurative in nature.

One of the most notable literary metaphors comes from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;

Other metaphor examples:

–It’s raining men.
–Time is a thief.
–She was the apple of her mother’s eye.
–After the traumatic invasion of his home, he was a rollercoaster of emotions.
–He was so hungry he could eat a horse.

I found a question on the Internet where someone asked for help with a simile:

“The harsh, forest green roof stood out even in the dark night like a…” (The author could only think of “sore thumb” to finish it and wanted something a bit more original and relevant.)

One responder offered four suggestions:

…like a scream within the calm.
…like a gaping sore on the landscape.
…like a cruel, relentless joke.
…like a rotten brushstroke within a masterpiece.

The author decided to go with the second one, and this yields more original and vivid simile instead of one with a cliché. There is nothing wrong with using common similes or clichés. They can work well in dialog if your characters would talk that way, perhaps as a personality quirk. An original simile from a character who is by nature unoriginal won’t sound right in context, so a cliché will likely work better there.

Authors run into trouble with misusing similes and metaphors in several ways. The key is to use them appropriately. Used inappropriately, they will call attention to your writing, often in a bad way.

(1) Using too many similes and metaphors. If you find yourself using them every few paragraphs (or sentences), you’re likely overusing or abusing them. If your character is simile junkie, then by all means use them more often for the sake of humor, but don’t overdo them or you’ll risk annoying your readers. Just be sure the reader understands they’re coming from the character, not from the author.

(2) Using inappropriate similes and metaphors.

–The smell hit me like a charging bull.
–The sound hit me like a charging bull.

While the reader will understand what you meant, comparing a strong smell or a loud noise to a charging bull is at best a stretch and runs closer to a bad or awkward comparison.

–As I approached the building where the rave was being held, the sounds thumping bass and reveling partygoers floated through the closed doors, then as soon as I entered, they hit me like a bowling ball striking pins. (This is a made-up example, not one I actually saw.)

The problem with this is two-fold. The first is that both “floating” and “striking” are used to describe the sounds. Which is it? Do the same sounds both float and strike? Second, “Hit me like a bowling ball striking pins” is just as inept a simile as the charging bull one. It’s borderline amateurish writing. A better wording would be: “…they hit me as if I were bowling pins beings struck by the ball.” This makes a bit more sense because it describes shows how the feeling of the sounds smacking the hearer. But it’s still not a very good simile. When using similes, be sure you really need one. Otherwise, it can come off as the writer trying to be clever by reaching for a comparison and couldn’t quite find the right one. It’s a sign of bad writing.

In the above example, instead of a simile, it might be better to saying something, “The sound hit me so hard it nearly knocked me over.”

Here are some really bad (and highly amusing) similes and metaphors I found on the Internet:

–I felt a nameless dread. Well, there probably is a long German name for it, like Geschpooklichkeit or something, but I don’t speak German. Anyway, it’s a dread that nobody knows the name for, like those little square plastic gizmos that close your bread bags. I don’t know the name for those either.

–He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

–The politician was gone but unnoticed, like the period after the Dr. on a Dr Pepper can.

–He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.
She caught your eye like one of those pointy hook latches that used to dangle from screen doors and would fly up whenever you banged the door open.

–He was developing a reputation in the world of lint-collecting, which was kind of like being the most famous man in Woodbridge.
The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

–Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the center.

Don’t get me wrong. In the right circumstances, these can work because they’re funny. Consider a character who might use one of them.

(3) Mixed metaphors.

Unlike an inappropriate metaphor (or simile), a mixed one combines two or more incompatible metaphors.

–This tower of strength will forge ahead.

–“Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud.” (from a speech by Boyle Roche in the Irish Parliament)

(Someone on commented on the latter one: “This sort of mixed metaphor may occur when a speaker is so familiar with the figurative sense of a phrase (“smell a rat,” “nip in the bud”) that he fails to recognize the absurdity that results from a literal reading.)

–“I don’t think we should wait until the other shoe drops. History has already shown what is likely to happen. The ball has been down this court before and I can see already the light at the end of the tunnel.” (Detroit News, quoted in The New Yorker, November 26, 2012)

–“So now what we are dealing with is the rubber meeting the road, and instead of biting the bullet on these issues, we just want to punt.” (Chicago Tribune, cited by The New Yorker, August 13, 2007)

–“[T]he bill is mostly a stew of spending on existing programs, whatever their warts may be.” (The New York Times, January 27, 2009)

On the other hand, mixed metaphors can also be intentional for purposes of humor as in this passage from Lynne Truss’ famous punctuation book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves:

Well, if punctuation is the stitching of language, language comes apart, obviously, and all the buttons fall off. If punctuation provides the traffic signals, words bang into each other and everyone ends up in Minehead. If one can bear for a moment to think of punctuation marks as those invisibly beneficent fairies (I’m sorry), our poor deprived language goes parched and pillowless to bed. And if you take the courtesy analogy, a sentence no longer holds the door open for you to walk in, but drops it in your face as you approach.


Properly used, similes and metaphors can add surprise and delight to your writing. Overused or poorly used, they can ruin an otherwise good piece of writing. As with any literary technique, they should be used with care and forethought. Always ask yourself whether a proposed one will enhance your description or detract from it. Similes and metaphors should stand out in a good way; the best ones should be unexpected and memorable.

Here are some modified passages from my own writing that contain (hopefully decent) similes and metaphors. Some of these examples use more than one simile or metaphor, which is perfectly acceptable as long as you don’t get carried away or do it too often. Or mix the metaphors. When using more than one in a given description, make sure they complement, not fight, one another.

–“Yes, sir; no, sir; anything you say, sir; no f**king way, sir. Military is not my favorite color.”

–The air around us rippled and turned colors, like someone had dropped gauze over us and filled the air with multicolored spray paint. Some people were dazed; others fainted. Dev paled and looked worse than a dog’s dinner. Then it hit me and I began quaking more than San Francisco in 1906.

–My brain had been washed and dried and someone had forgotten to take the Kleenex out of the pockets.

–I awoke lying on my back, brain-fuzzed again. Jen-Varth knelt over me, propping my head up while he poured down my throat a liquid that tasted like moldy spinach. When I started coughing, he gave me a few sips of water. Whatever the stuff was, it vacuumed away the fuzz in my head.

–“Tomorrow I expect the military to be all over this place like fleas on the family pet.”

–To complete my attire, they’d provided soft, dark-brown leather shoes that felt like gloves on my feet. The robe was the natural-fiber-catalogue variety and had the softness of a seasoned sweatshirt.

–Jake had more mystery in him than an Agatha Christie novel.


Here are some great similes from literature:

–“…she had tried to get rid of the kitten which had scrambled up her back and stuck like a burr just out of reach.” [Little Women by Louisa May Alcott]

–“Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.” [The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood]

–“In the eastern sky there was a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun…” [The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane]

–“The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key.” [Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell]

As these final examples demonstrate, good similes and metaphors don’t call attention to themselves and flow naturally from the prose. Be sure that your similes and metaphors serve a purpose to improve your prose and that they don’t sound as if you pulled them from a bag of bad metaphors that someone tossed to the curb.


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