Similes, Metephors and the Color Purple

Similes and metaphors are all part of a writers pallet. An author wields a descriptive brush, gathering up the appropriate pigment with which to paint their next picture.  The medium is one of words but a picture is painted nonetheless.

Dense, cold, jagged grief hung from his heart like a block of wet clay mixed with broken glass.

Similes and metaphors are close cousins.  Both are comparative devices that a writer can use to great effect. A simile is a direct comparison of two unlike things generally using the words “like,” “as,” or “than” to make the connection.

Illustration of Simile and Metaphor

Simile and Metaphor discuss their differences (illustration by Andy Black)

A metaphor is an implied comparison in which the object of description becomes something else without the use of the simile’s usual modifiers:

The other jockeys didn’t have a chance, Built for Speed was a bullet on the horse track.

The above example can easily be changed from a metaphor to a simile by altering it to read:

Built for Speed shot out of the starting gate like a bullet on the horse track.

The difference is that in the metaphor the race horse became a bullet whereas the simile compared him to a bullet.  Both equally convey speed.  The simile may come more easily but with a little effort the subtler metaphor can be poetically employed with wonderful results:

An entourage of brown leaves escorted Ray through the front door, and the windy  bouncer shoved it shut behind him with a bang.

Turning it into a simile is easy to accomplish but I feel loses something in the translation:

Brown leaves served as an entourage escorting Ray through the front door, while the wind blew it shut behind him with a bang.

Applause sounded like flapping wings (photo: thinkstock)

The simile is not the poorer cousin, like the metaphor it can be used with similar success:

A rippling of applause from surrounding tables sounded like the flapping wings of a large flock of birds spooked into simultaneous flight.

Sometimes a creative description can fall in between the two figures of speech:

His head was roughly the shape and size of a toaster oven.

It doesn’t say his head looked like a toaster oven or that he had a toaster oven of a head. Use these techniques to enhance your writing and the reader’s experience but employe them with restraint.  Similes and metaphors in sentence after sentence can wear the reader down who will skip ahead, turn the page, or heaven forbid, find another book.

Poorly written sentences endlessly crowded with descriptive and excessively flowery writing is referred to as Purple Prose.

With hips akimbo, Jessica stood perfectly backlit as her golden hair caught the shimmering light, rimming her head like a brilliant halo, shining with the blinding radiance of a thousand suns throwing crepuscular rays like a discotheque light show all about her lithe and shapely unclothed form, as naked as the day she was brought into this world.

This is a purposely exaggerated “purple prose” passage created for the sake of illustration but the point is to avoid packing your sentences, paragraphs and pages with excessive and ill conceived description. Maybe something like the following can conjure an effective picture of the lovely Jessica without wading through all those excessive details:

Bright sunlight became ensnared in Jessica’s fishline tangle of hair, her silhouetted figure clothed in nothing but shadow.

Sometimes less is more. Usually more is too much. Use similes and metaphors to enhance your writing. Avoid overly flowery descriptions and pare your work down to only the necessary words.  Write, read, refine, re-read, and refine again. Let your words sing like a dawn inspired bird.


5 comments on “Similes, Metephors and the Color Purple

  1. As I read this I wondered, what it was that made Andy select this topic.
    But it is a great grammar lesson.
    I do think that crepuscular is under used, however, and I am going to try to use it all day, if I can figure out what it means.


    • Crepuscular is one of my favorite words. If you have ever seen sunlight angling down through puffy popcorn clouds (often referred to as “God’s Light”) then you have witnessed crepuscular rays. I keep waiting for it to pop up on an episode of Jeopardy! but until then I’ll be relegated to bandying it about on blogs and at cocktail parties…

  2. Nice Andy and helpful.. As a struggling writer I am always looking for help with words. I was drawn to writing by the stories the words tell and not the vehicle themselves, but I can see the words are easily if not more important than the message they deliver. Keep them coming.


    • Richard–
      I’m glad to hear this was helpful. It’s a little ironic that a graphic artist is dispensing grammar lessons but my goal with this blog is to share what I have learned as I enter the writers’ universe.

  3. […] pushing similes and metaphors. If you need a refresher on metaphors and similes you can check out my earlier post on the subject.  Write a story that is heavily ladened with similes and/or metaphors. The requirement is that you […]

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