Metaphorically speaking

Last week I blogged about verbs and adverbs. I must admit I have tried my best this week to follow my own advice and use better verbs – with fewer, or more meaningful, adverbs. This week I found myself thinking about metaphors and similes. We use them more than we realise. If we didn’t, our writing would be of lesser quality. So let’s explore.

What is a metaphor, and how is it different to a simile? In terms of the language, the simple answer is that similes use the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ – whereas a metaphor jumps right in with ‘is’ or ‘was’. He was like a rock when….. He was as solid as a rock when …. He was a rock when…. Only the third partial sentence uses a metaphor. The first two are similes. Yet they express more or less the same meanings.

Why do we use them? To lift our writing into higher dimensions by creating word pictures. Let’s complete that sentence: He was a rock for his children when their mother died. We grasp the meaning – he was strong and supportive. Suppose we wrote: He was strong and supportive for his children when their mother died. Is either example better than the other? If so, which? I favour the metaphor for the following reasons. The word ‘rock’ for me, expresses far more, and relates not just to strength and support. The words – solid, reliable and indestructible also come to mind when I think about a real rock. So metaphors can add greater implicit meaning, and when used accurately, may just have the edge.

What about similes? Examples : as white as a sheet, as blue as the sky, as green as grass, as black as coal, as cold as ice, as free as a bird, as smooth as silk….and so on. We know exactly what they mean. The problem with my examples here is that they are also cliches. And cliches, for writers, are a definite no, no! It is sometimes difficult to come up with suitable alternatives that fit the meaning of a sentence. But how about: as yellow as egg yolk? As black as night? As hot as fire? As flexible as a rubber band? As smooth as cooked egg white – no, that doesn’t sound right, does it?

Coming up with non-cliched similes is more difficult than we might imagine, as much depends on how well the simile fits the precise nuance of a sentence.

I have looked back at some of my own examples from recent blogs. Here is one:
‘Perhaps the answer hides between shades of grey’ – (about whether adverbs are friend or foe?) I knew what I meant at the time. But I couldn’t explain it without a metaphor. Shades of colour seemed to fit my thinking. Another example: ‘….make the action jump off the page’? I realise now that this too is a cliche. Again, I knew what I meant at the time, and the easiest way to illustrate it was to use a metaphor.

Maybe this is why metaphors and similes can be made to work so well, as we can express our meaning in very few words and create accurate mind images. At the same time we must beware of metaphors and similes as cliches – and avoid them like the plague. You see, what I’ve done. That cliche just entered my head (avoid like the plague). Our language is cluttered with them – cliches in the form of similes and metaphors. I’m off now to find and weed out (weed ? – we can’t help it – can we) my own bad examples.

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