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Saturday, February 09, 2013

A Metaphor Is the Fizz in the Soda Pop

All writers—not just children’s writers—need to have a basket full of figures of speech in the corner of the office, where the writing books and tools are stored.

Today I want to look at two figures of speech. Two that you all know about, but that are often lacking from manuscripts I receive. Two that, if you will remember to employ them, have the power to move your writing from good to great.

Metaphor and Simile: 

Both metaphors and similes compare two items that are not alike most ways, but which are alike in some way.

Metaphors rename the item under discussion: Envy IS a green-eyed monster. 

Similes use the words “like” or “as” to make the comparison: Life is LIKE a box of chocolates. Or: I was as wound up AS a kindergartner on a sugar high. 

Writers should work to put metaphors and similes into their books, because this kind of picturesque language stays with the reader. We remember Enger’s Peace Like a River (the title of which is itself a simile), in part because of his lovely metaphors and similes:
  • Winter was a train crawling north. 
  • ...certainty enters into me like light, like a piece of science... 
  • Sleep was a warm pool. 

Good metaphors and similes have several things in common. 

  • They fit the character's POV: 
    • A small child wouldn’t say his toy train went as fast as a Bugatti. He’d say it went as fast as his wagon went when his brother pulled him around the yard. 
    • An art history professor would be more apt to say his wife had a figure as finely formed as Michelangelo’s David, than to say the sight of her was a pleasing as the sight of new corn popping up after a long winter. 
  • They are easy to understand: 
    • Even if your character is a physicist, you don’t necessarily want to compare something to a quark. If you use unfamiliar terms in your comparisons, rather than describing something in a lovely, memorable way, you’ll have frustrated the reader by describing a thing he can’t picture. 
  • They are memorable…in a good way: 
    • It may be true that her eyes sparkled like sun on a lake, but who will remember that? That forgetful metaphor would be better, though, than this memorable one: Her eyes sparkled like diamonds shining in the sewer after a thief flushed them down the toilet when the police came knocking on his door. 
Your turn. What else makes for a good metaphor or simile?

 photo credit: h.koppdelaney via photopin cc
Sally Apokedak
Sally Apokedak is an associate agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency. She's in the process of building a dynamite list of authors. She is also active in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.


  1. Thanks for posting this helpful info.I soak up any type of info dealing with any type of writing.Whether if it's for kids,teens or adults.Because you're never to old to learn some thing new about writing.#JMO

  2. Hey, thanks for commenting. I was just about to say, "It's as quiet in here as a three-year-old coloring on his bedroom walls." But now I can't say that. Thanks for saving me from making a fool of myself with corny metaphors. :)

  3. Your posts are finer than frogs hairs split three ways, Sally!

    1. :) Love your southern metaphors, Lisa. Love, love, love them.

  4. I love these tips, especially fitting the metaphor to the POV character. Then there's the direct approach. Witness this actual conversation. I was with my two sons and suddenly remembered that I wanted to ask one of them something....

    ME, to Kid A: Oh—question…

    KID A: Answer!

    KID B, to Kid A: Rebuttal!

    KID A, to Kid B): Counter-rebuttal!

    KID B, to Kid A: Metaphor questioning your intelligence!

    KID A, to Kid B: Simile comparing you to small wildlife!

    ME, to Both: When did I get invited out of this conversation??

    1. How very fun! sounds like great dialog with a dramatic build - nicely done!

    2. Janice, very funny conversation.

  5. Tolkien was a master of the well-crafted simile. Here are a couple examples from an article I once wrote for Writer's Journal:

    Concerning Eowyn of Rohan: "Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver…." (Chapter 6, Book III, The Two Towers)

    In Mordor, Frodo and Sam tumble into thorny bushes: "The thorns and briars were as tough as wire and as clinging as claws." (Chapter 1, Book VI, The Return of the King.)

    Can't you just picture Eowyn's flowing tresses? Can't you feel the ugly thorns that shred both skin and clothing?

    1. Rick, I do like those similes. And they aren't really fancy. They are clear. That's what metaphors and similes should be.


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