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- What Is a Metaphor?
- What Are the Different Types of Metaphor?
- What Are the Pros and Cons of Using Metaphor?
- When Do You Use Metaphor in Fiction Writing?
- 3 Examples of Metaphor in Literature
- What Is a Simile?
- How Do You Write a Good Simile?
- 4 Examples of Simile in Literature
- What Is an Analogy?
- The 3 Things a Good Analogy Does
- 2 Examples of Analogy in Literature
- What’s the Difference Between Metaphor, Simile, and Analogy?
What Is a Metaphor?
A metaphor is a figure of speech that directly compares one thing to another for rhetorical effect. One of the most famous examples of metaphor in the English language also happens to be a great example of this technique: In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the playwright writes:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.”
This is a textbook example of a metaphor. Shakespeare is comparing the world to a stage by saying one is the other. However, he does not mean this literally. (In other words, he doesn’t literally believe the world is a stage.) The comparison is rhetorical. By comparing the world to a stage, and the people in the world as players on it, he is inviting us to think about the similarities between the two, and by extension, the meaning of human nature and our place in the world.
What Are the Different Types of Metaphor?
- Implied. An implied metaphor is a type of metaphor that compares two things that are not alike without actually mentioning one of those things. For example, “A woman barked a warning at her child.” Here, the implied metaphor compares a woman to a dog, without actually mentioning the dog.
- Dead. A dead metaphor is a type of metaphor that has shifted meaning over time due to overuse. Dead metaphors don’t convey an image in the mind—for example, picturing the woman in the example above as a dog barking at her child—because their original interpretation has long been lost. However, we instantly recognize their meaning. For this reason, some argue that dead metaphors are no longer metaphors at all. Examples of dead metaphors include “kicking the bucket” and “the body of work.”
- Mixed. A mixed metaphor is a combination of two or more metaphors that are incompatible. The effect is often humorous. Whether it is intentional or unintentional depends on one’s grasp of how metaphors work. Here are some examples of mixed metaphors:
“Not the sharpest cookie in the cookie jar.”
“A watched clock never boils.”
“A rolling stone is worth two in the bush.”
- Visual. A visual metaphor compares one thing to a visual image that suggests an association. Visual metaphors are commonly used in advertising. For example, a car manufacturer picturing their latest sports car alongside an image of a panther. The metaphor is used to suggest the car is as slick, fast, and cool as the wild animal.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Using Metaphor?
Coming up with a great metaphor is as satisfying as it is powerful. Its advantage over both simile and analogy is that its impact is more direct. Comparing something to something else by saying it is that thing evokes a clearer, stronger picture in the reader’s mind than simply saying it is like something, or using an analogy, which requires more explanation (and, as we said above, is often used to prove a point).
That said, metaphors should be used sparingly. Use them too much and you run the risk of confusing your reader. The point of your story is not to impress your reader with clever phrases and metaphors; it is to hold their attention and tell a great story. If a metaphor can serve that greater goal, then use it. If it doesn’t, don’t be tempted.
When Do You Use Metaphor in Fiction Writing?
There are several instances when metaphor is useful in fiction writing:
- When you need to paint a picture—fast. Sometimes, what you need the reader to understand can’t be described in a few sentences. Sometimes, you just need to show them what you mean. In such instances, a metaphor works best. For example, you might want to show why your main character is frustrated with his wife. Instead of spending time describing her tedious behavior, you have your character compare her to the lights in their apartment—easily switched on and off.
- When you need to infuse some uncertainty into the situation. As much as a metaphor can help illuminate a thought or a scene, it can also help to give it a touch of mystery. Again, it’s all about choosing the right metaphor for the situation you need. For example, telling the reader something about a character that you want to hint at now, and slowly reveal later. “She looks like a nice person. In fact, she is a snake in the grass.”
3 Examples of Metaphor in Literature
Literature is full of creative metaphors, the best of which demonstrate the power of this literary device when wielded with skill and sharp wit.
“The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid near and nearer the sill of the world.”
William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954)
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!”
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597)
“The parents looked upon Matilda in particular as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away.”
Roald Dahl, Matilda (1988)
What Is a Simile?
Unlike metaphors, similes create a comparison using like and as. Perhaps you’ll recognize this famous simile from Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates.”
In this case, the reader is more explicitly aware of the comparison that’s being made versus a metaphor or analogy. Remember, a simile is a type of metaphor.
How Do You Write a Good Simile?
Like metaphors, similes should be used sparingly. If you find you’re spending too much time trying to come up with one, it’s likely your reader will see your effort. A good simile is:
- Simple and clear. Think about what you’re trying to compare and the context you’re doing it in. Does the simile fit the emotion of the scene? Does it fit the character or characters in that scene?
- Original. This can be tough, but it’s obviously good to try and avoid clichés or similes that have been used in the past. Don’t try and get too creative. Think about the imagery you’re trying to evoke in the reader’s mind.
- Entertaining. This is a tough one, but if you’re going to go to all the trouble of creating a simile, make sure it sticks out. Be punchy. What’s the use of creating a boring simile?
- Visual. A simile is intended to paint a picture in the reader’s mind about a particular character or situation. Make sure that the image is as vivid as possible.
4 Examples of Simile in Literature
See if you can determine the different visual effect created by each of these four similes.
“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.”
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
“She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Three Gables (1926)
“The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key.”
Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (1940)
“Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
What Is an Analogy?
An analogy serves a similar purpose to simile and a metaphor—i.e. showing how two things are alike—but with the ultimate goal of making a point about this comparison. The point of an analogy is not merely to show, but also to explain. For this reason, an analogy is more complex than both similes and metaphors. For example, consider this analogy for futility:
“What you’re doing is as useful as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”
Here, the speaker is comparing the task being done to the task of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But the ultimate goal is not to compare one task to another. The ultimate goal is to communicate that the first task is useless—by comparing it to a similarly useless task, such as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
The 3 Things a Good Analogy Does
An analogy can be useful to explain an unfamiliar idea in writing. Using an analogy to link this idea to something that is familiar (for example, the Titanic image above) can help the reader better comprehend what you’re trying to say. It’s also a catchy and clever way to help get a point across. A good analogy:
- Creates the right imagery. If you’re trying to explain to your reader how one thing is similar to another, you have to make sure the example you’re using is common and easily understood. The point of an analogy is to encourage deeper thought.
- Compare and contrast. Think about the idea you’re trying to get across. When trying to find something commonplace to compare it to, think about possible connections between the two things. This means both similarities and differences. Which evokes the most powerful image?
- Inspire. The best analogies both explain and inspire. As a literary device, an analogy is a powerful way to communicate a message. However, it can also turn an idea into a vivid image in the reader’s mind that will stick long after they’ve finished reading.
2 Examples of Analogy in Literature
Both of these examples demonstrate the deft use of analogy to serve a higher purpose.
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)
Here, Orwell makes a comparison between men and the pigs that have taken control of the farm. What he is trying to imply with this analogy is that the pigs have transformed into the very thing they were meant to be rebelling against.
“What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called.”
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597)
Here, Shakespeare is using Juliet’s words to compare Romeo to a rose. The implication being that in her eyes, Romeo’s last name doesn’t change who he is, or what he is—the same way that calling a rose by any other name doesn’t change its intrinsic characteristics.
What’s the Difference Between Metaphor, Simile, and Analogy?
While these figures of speech are used to compare different things, here are some clear rules to help you distinguish between metaphor, simile, and analogy.
- A simile is saying something is like something else.
- A metaphor is often poetically saying something is something else.
- An analogy is saying something is like something else to make some sort of an explanatory point.
- You can use metaphors and similes when creating an analogy.
- A simile is a type of metaphor. All similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes.