Don’t let similes and metaphors frighten you.
“I don’t quite know how to describe what I’m feeling,” you might say during your writing as you grope for a way to describe in words this emotion that is beyond words.
There is a solution to this dilemma that writers often resort to—but one too many are sure they can’t handle. It is the use of metaphors, similes, images, and symbols. These will bring your text to a level beyond words.
1. A simile is a comparison that uses like or as.
When you say, “Life is like a merry-go-round”, you are making a simile—even if it’s not a terribly original one. It’s a simile, too, if you write, “I’m busy as a bee.” In a simile, because of the use of like and as, it is clear that the writer is making a comparison. here is an example:
My love is like the red, red rose/That’s newly sprung in June, /My love is like the melody/That’s sweetly played in tune. —Robert Burns
2. A metaphor is a comparison that does not use like or as.
You make a metaphor when you say, “Life is a merry-go-round.” Metaphors are different from similes in that the comparison is a touch hidden. There is no like or as to cue the reader. Life, of course, isn’t really a merry-go-round—what you mean is that life is like a merry-go-round: it has speed, a sense of thrill, and fancy. And of course, you are not a bee— you are merely like a bee in your busy-ness”.
I hope Robert Burns will forgive me for altering his verses below but it’s done for the good of literature—your memoir. Had Burns omitted the word like he would have written a metaphor—but, of course, he did not.
Both similes and metaphors appropriate for one person, thing, or idea a quality that belongs to another. Robert Burns hoped that we would ascribe our feelings for the beauty and fragility of a red rose to love. (Isn’t love just as beautiful and fragile as the rose?)
Similes and metaphors “borrow” meaning from other words, but they clearly “borrow” just a portion of the meaning of the person, the thing, or the idea which is being compared to another. Like two gray circles that overlap only partially to create a darker area (the previous phrase is a part of a simile), similes and metaphors overlap only partially the meaning of the thing or person to which they are compared.
3. Similes and metaphors are not definitions of persons, things, or ideas.
They are different from definitions. Similes and metaphors are vague and so they are often used in clusters (often, writers stack a number of similes or metaphors before they feel they have achieved the effect they were striving for). Burns attempts to pinpoint his love one more time by writing later in the same poem, “My love is like a melody/Sweetly played in tune”. When the author adds this new simile to that of the red, red rose, he is attempting to create clearer meaning. Your writing, too, will require that you stack a number of similes and metaphors before you achieve the effect you are striving for.
Definitions are precise. When you write that a merry-go-round is a carousel, you are not saying that it is like a carousel; you are clearly stating that a merry-go-round is a carousel. You are defining the word merry-go-round. Unlike similes and metaphors that thrive on ambiguity, definitions thrive on clarity.
Similes and metaphors appeal to a poetic sense which accepts and appreciates without being judgmental and evaluative. They tap into our childlike relationship to the world. By including appropriate similes and metaphors, you will engage your reader in a way that circumvents the rational mind. Because of this, similes and metaphors are especially effective within lead paragraphs or for introducing characters.
- Keep a list of similes and metaphors that you have found while reading. This will make you much more aware of these devises and you may begin noticing how prevalent their use is in writing.
- Take the similes and metaphors you have collected and change an element in each to experience how much each word contributes to a particular meaning the author is reaching for. For instance, had you written in your notebook “the sun was a flower over the city” you might transform it into “the sun was a guardian over the city” or “the sun was a canopy over the city”. How are each of these similar or different in the meaning they suggest?
For more on similes and metaphors for the memoir writer, listen to Similes and Metaphors, an MP3, which is part of our new collection of MP3s, Making the Story Bigger, Second Draft Work.
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