38. Vivid Imagery Part 1: Metaphorically Speaking

Author: Nola Published: over 2 years ago.
Tags: similes, metaphors, imagery Category: Writing tips

Which of the following sounds more interesting?

‘Nell woke when the phone rang at 3:30 am. She reached out her hand to pick up the receiver.’

OR

‘Captured in a moon shadow grotesquely magnified against a white wall, the hand is a tarantula suspended above a ringing phone.’ (From The Memory Stones by Kate O’Riordan).

I think you’ll agree that the second example adds a lot more punch. One of the reasons is that the author uses an intriguing metaphor. We can see the tarantula-like hand reaching out to grab the phone.

Metaphors and similes help us visualise a scene by comparing one thing to another. The difference is that similes typically include ‘as’ or ‘like’ (she’s as quiet as a mouse), while metaphors state that one thing is another (she is a mouse). Here are some tips for using metaphors and similes in your work.

Avoid clichés. Try thinking of something fresh. Instead of saying an object is ‘as white as snow’, think of other things that are white and use something less common (e.g. milk, pearls, clouds, whipped cream, photocopy paper, bridal gown).

Brainstorm ideas. Your first idea will seldom be your best. Come up with as many possibilities as you can without censoring them. Then pick the best one.

Change perspective. Don’t just look at obvious similarities between two things. Try looking at it from different angles. I attended a workshop in which poet Cameron Semmens asked us what the moon is like. Most people thought of round objects like a ball or a pizza. He then asked us to think of different phases of the moon (e.g. crescent moon, half-moon) or to consider what the moon looks like at different times of the day or with different types of sky as a background. The variety of examples people came up with was amazing.

Match the mood. Ensure that any similes or metaphors correspond to the mood of the piece you’re writing (e.g. amusing metaphors for a funny article, dramatic similes for a serious scene). Your protagonist’s eyes might be ‘so bloodshot they look like a Google map of Mars’, but that humorous description may ruin your suspenseful scene. Save it for later and write something else.

Less is more. Metaphors and similes have a greater effect if used sparingly. You want your reader to linger over your beautiful words or funny analogies rather than being jarred out of the story. This is especially true for action-packed scenes. A well-placed metaphor or simile can heighten the action, but too many slow it down.

Writing fresh metaphors and similes isn’t easy. However, you’ll get better with practice. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d better dig out my latest manuscript and follow my own advice.

(N.B. This post also appeared on the Melissa Writes website on 1 May 2015: http://melissawrites.com.au/2015/05/friday-five-metaphorically-speaking/

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