Three Keys to Memorable Similes and Metaphors

Metaphors and Similes in FictionBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Metaphors and similes are one of the keys to memorable stories because they create images that tap into our emotions. They stick in our minds because they give us something tangible to hang on to.

A simile uses like or as to compare two different things.

A metaphor goes a step deeper. Instead of saying something is like something else, they say something is a different thing.

Unfortunately, metaphors and similes don’t inherently help our book. Flat ones are forgettable. We have to make them memorable.

Memorable Figures of Speech Are Fresh and Unexpected

George Orwell advised, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” His point was that if you’ve seen it in other books before, it’s no longer fresh. It might even be verging on clichéd.

The best metaphors and similes stick in people’s minds because they don’t remember ever hearing them before.

Let’s look at a couple examples.

In her book The Spirit Thief, Rachel Aaron uses a metaphor to describe Miranda’s angry tone of voice. She could have chosen an overused simile such as her voice was cold as ice. Instead, here’s what she wrote…

Her voice would have frozen a boiling pot (147).

Not only was this metaphor fresh, but it also fit the funny, quirky tone of the book.

In The Doctor’s Lady, Jody Hedlund could have described her hero’s mother as mousy or faded, but here’s what she chose…

Pale and colorless, like the listless smoke that hung in the air.

Reading that, you can see a woman who’s given up on life. She exists, but she’s not really there emotionally. She’s frail not only in body, but also in mind.

Memorable Figures of Speech Enhance Our Understanding of the Familiar

Oftentimes, we’ll use a metaphor or simile to describe something every reader will be familiar with. These figures of speech are in the most danger of running into clichéd territory.

In this situation, we have to use our simile or metaphor to help our reader understand what we’re describing in a new way. We want them to have the gut reaction of “Yes, that’s exactly how it feels. She just put into words something I’ve known all along but haven’t been able to articulate.”

Listen to how Kathryn Stockett described Skeeter’s feeling of dread in The Help.

The dread in my stomach is flat and hard and hot, like a brick in the sun (pg. 178).

Not only does that perfectly describe dread, but it does it in a way that suits the character of Skeeter.

Memorable Figures of Speech Help Us Experience the Unfamiliar

If you’re writing about something your reader will likely have no experience with, choose a simile that will let them equate it with something they’ll know.

Later on in The Help, Minnie, a black maid, bursts into the bathroom to help her sick employer. Celia lies on the floor, covered in blood after miscarrying her baby. Here’s how Stockett chose to describe the dead baby…

It smells like meat, like hamburger defrosting on the counter (pg. 232).

It’s a situation very few of us will have experienced, so Stockett associated something unfamiliar with something familiar, allowing us to play an intimate part in a foreign experience. We no longer have to have personal experience with a miscarried child to know what it smells like.

Do you have a favorite metaphor? If you’re brave enough, share a flat description from your current work in progress and how you rewrote it to make it memorable. I’d love to read them!

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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