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Are Similes, Metaphors, and Analogies a Bad Idea? : Conversation question • Writing Forum | WritersDigest.com

Are Similes, Metaphors, and Analogies a Bad Idea?

Every month in Writer's Digest's InkWell section, we pose a question related to the writing life. Tell us your thoughts.
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Are Similes, Metaphors, and Analogies a Bad Idea?

Postby DrG2 » Wed Mar 05, 2014 8:09 pm

A critiquer recently suggested to me that figures of speech such as similes should be removed, as it was advice he had received. The particular piece he reviewed was a short chapter with only one simile in it.
(I had previously come up with my 95% hypothesis: 95% of amateur authors do similes, metaphors and analogies poorly, and 95% of them think they are in the 5% that do them well. - - I acknowledge that this is probably hyperbole, but probably 95% of figures of speech that stick out are ones with a problem.)

Initially, it seemed . . . well, insane, to categorically exclude such figures of speech from fiction. Figurative language is essential in quality writing, right? Now, I'm not so sure. I thought of the possible outcomes and the balance sheet doesn't look good for including such figures of speech in your writing. So, look at the possible outcomes, below, and tell me what you think.

Possible Outcomes from Using Similes, Metaphors or Analogies
FOS = figure(s) of speech, particularly similes, metaphors and analogies.

I The FOS doesn’t “work”
A. The relationship in the FOS doesn’t work. Either the writer is comparing items that are not related, or the relationship is so obscure that the reader doesn’t get it. Outcome: The reader is knocked out of the story, the writer has not communicated the information she wanted, and the reader might be disinclined to read further to avoid similar experiences.
FOS can be compared to jokes. Some jokes are “inside jokes” because they rely on particular shared experiences. When the reader does not share the experiences of the writer, the FOS doesn’t work. This is very tricky, because if the author relies on experiences that almost everyone has had, they have a very good chance to fall into cliches - - category II.B., below.
B. The logic of the FOS doesn’t work. Outcome: The reader is knocked out of the story, the writer has not communicated the information she wanted, and the reader might be disinclined to read further to avoid similar experiences.

II The FOS “works”
A. The figure of speech imparts the information the author intended, but the reader never really notices it as a FOS. Outcome: This is the only real positive outcome, though the benefit is small. The reader may subconsciously appreciate the FOS.
B. The FOS is a cliche. The FOS probably imparts the desired information, but will seem unoriginal or trite. Outcome: A few cliches scattered through the manuscript probably won’t have much effect, but if the author does this frequently, it will kick the reader out of the story and make him think less of the writer.
C. The figure of speech imparts the information the author intended, but the FOS is ridiculous. For example, “His heart beat as fast as the wings of a hummingbird that has gorged on the nectar of coca flowers.” OK, we get it, a hummingbird’s wings already beat fast; a hummingbird on cocaine would have really fast wings. The author is trying too hard. Outcome: The reader is knocked out of the story, and the reader might be disinclined to read further, to avoid similar experiences. NOTE: such FOS may have a place in humor writing.
D. The FOS is such an acute and novel insight into reality that the reader is in awe of the writer’s brilliance. It will show up on Facebook statuses and be reshared ad nauseam. Outcome: The reader gets kicked out of the story. If such FOS are common, it becomes clear that the story is merely a vehicle for the writer to show off their intelligence. Contrary to popular opinion, the purpose of writing a story is not to prove that you are smarter than everyone else, it’s to tell a story. The focus should always be on the story, not the author.

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Re: Are Similes, Metaphors, and Analogies a Bad Idea?

Postby updog » Wed Mar 05, 2014 9:06 pm

I don't think I'd want to live in a world where writers didn't use metaphor. :shock:
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Re: Are Similes, Metaphors, and Analogies a Bad Idea?

Postby MookyMcD » Wed Mar 05, 2014 10:37 pm

I don't even know if it's possible. There was a discussion about this over at AW a month or two ago, and I'd laugh every time a purist would talk about it, saying that using them is taking the easy road.

Um, you mean never say things like "taking easy road?" :lol: :lol:

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Re: Are Similes, Metaphors, and Analogies a Bad Idea?

Postby robjvargas » Thu Mar 06, 2014 8:40 am

Similes are like soup.

Some warm you up inside when the world seems cold. Others I pour on the lawn for weedkiller.

:D
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Re: Are Similes, Metaphors, and Analogies a Bad Idea?

Postby James A. Ritchie » Thu Mar 06, 2014 9:46 am

There's nothing wrong with metaphors, similes, and figures of speech, as long as they work, as long as they're original, and as long as they aren't overdone. If they do work, if they are original, and if they aren't overdone, they make writing much better.

The only appropriate use of cliches is to reveal character, and you must let the reader know that you, the writer, know it's a cliche.

Unless used to reveal character, and in a way that shows the writers knows it's a cliche, cliches kill any work of fiction. They kill it fast. Using cliches is not taking the easy road, it's taking the long, hard, bumpy road. Editors and agents HATE cliches, and so do most readers.

There's a reason it's called "creative" writing, and not "copy what some other writer did" writing. Or, to put Capote's opinion of Jack Kerouac to better use, "That's not writing, it's typing." The idea is to create good, original similes and metaphors that work, and have lesser writers copy them to the point where they become cliches.

There simply isn't any reason to use cliches other than to, judiciously, reveal character, or because of laziness, and the inability to create your own, original similes and metaphors that do the same job.

About 95% of new writers generally do use similes, metaphors, and figures of speech poorly, but about 95% of new writers generally do everything poorly, whether it's something like this, or characterization, or pace and flow, or mood and tone, etc. There's a learning curve in everything, and writing is no exception. This doesn't mean new writers shouldn't use such things, it merely means they need to keep practicing until they can use them well.

A great, original simile, metaphor, or figure of speech in the right spot can make all the difference. One that doesn't work, or that's a cliche, can stop an agent or editor from reading even an otherwise good manuscript, especially if it happens early on.

The basic rule is that if you've read it somewhere, don't use it, unless you can do so in a way that reveals character, and lets the reader know that you're perfectly aware that it is a cliche. Other than to reveal character, why would you even want to use something you've read before?

On the other hand, if you've never read it, but you have heard it, there's a chance you have the opportunity to steal, er, borrow, it. People come up with great metaphors, similes, and figures of speech on a regular basis. I'd guess more start this way than in a writer's place of business. This is why writers are supposed to listen to people. If you hear a great simile, metaphor, or figure of speech in dialogue, and can't find it online, it's not a cliche, then it's fair game.

Another trick is to turn a phrase on it's head. Anyone here old enough to remember when "A good man is hard to find" became "A hard man is good to find"? A great, completely appropriate piece of writing that fit the story perfectly, simply from rearranging the words in a sentence.

I do disagree with D. The FOS is such an acute and novel insight into reality that the reader is in awe of the writer’s brilliance. It will show up on Facebook statuses and be reshared ad nauseam. Outcome: The reader gets kicked out of the story. If such FOS are common, it becomes clear that the story is merely a vehicle for the writer to show off their intelligence. Contrary to popular opinion, the purpose of writing a story is not to prove that you are smarter than everyone else, it’s to tell a story. The focus should always be on the story, not the author.

It's true that the focus should be on the story, but as long as a FOS like this fits the story, is there because it works with the story, it won't knock the reader out of the story, or, if it does, it will be in a good way. This is what you're after, a FOS so good that everyone uses it, and it quickly becomes a cliche precisely because other writers copy it, rather than coming up with their own brilliant FOS.

I'd had a great FOS jump off the page and slap me because it was so true, and meshed with the overall story so perfectly. Rather than pulling me out of the story, however, it pulled me deeper inside the story, made me want to keep reading to see what other truths the story contained. Hemingway said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence." He was right, and the perfect FOS at the right time can be that one true sentence that separates you from every other writer.

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Re: Are Similes, Metaphors, and Analogies a Bad Idea?

Postby Jake_Borrett » Thu Mar 06, 2014 11:14 am

In my personal opinion whether to use figure of speech depends on the style of writing you hope to achieve. For instance if I was writing a first person narrative from the perspective of a teenager it is unlikely they are going to be using metaphors, similes and analogies but are more likely want to 'get to the point'. Alternatively if you are writing from third person and want to describe a magnificent setting you may be more specific.

Of course it all depends on your personal preference and whether it seems fitting.

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Re: Are Similes, Metaphors, and Analogies a Bad Idea?

Postby TerryRodgers » Thu Mar 06, 2014 1:08 pm

I believe it was me that pointed that out DrG2. I think what I'm struggling with is exactly what is a bad metaphor or as one agent told me metaphors that are trite.

Here's an example:

Except that he spits fire and can kill a man with his laser beam eyeballs.

I admit it, I wrote that. It's horrible I know, and an agent pointed it out. So it's gone.

Another example:

It didn’t help the arthritis either as it made his fingers crampy and sore.

I'm removing this sentence because once again it was pointed out by an agent, but this is where I have a problem. Other than crampy is not actually a word, even though I've heard it said a lot in my neck of the woods, why is this so trite. Has anyone had arthritis in their fingers? It suck. They hurt. They're always sore. Just moving them hurt. They feel like they need adjusted hence crampy.

So anything that is a description or a comparison needs to be seriously examined? Is that the gist of it?

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Re: Are Similes, Metaphors, and Analogies a Bad Idea?

Postby MookyMcD » Thu Mar 06, 2014 1:26 pm

This is really an execution question. I can't think of any kind of objective standard or construct that creates a line between good uses and bad uses. Since we are talking about something without physical existence, my use of "crates a line" is an example of the impracticality of trying to avoid them altogether. I didn't do that on purpose.

The arthritis example doesn't seem like a figure of speech at all. You said "It aggravated a medical condition, causing two symptoms." I'm not saying you should put that sentence back in -- I just don't see how it's a simile or metaphor. "It didn’t help the arthritis either, turning his knuckles into rusty hinges" would be a (crappy) example of that. I think your first example is (no offense) overwrought. If he's not a superhero or villain, and that truly is metaphor, it's over the top. It may work fine if you're going for humor, but it's flaw is more in the cartoonish nature of the visual than the use of metaphor. I've never seen it before, so it's not a cliche. It's probably just too much -- the alternative to too much is not, necessarily, zero.

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Re: Are Similes, Metaphors, and Analogies a Bad Idea?

Postby TerryRodgers » Thu Mar 06, 2014 3:04 pm

Also I want to add, that one particular agent that offered an R&R had only three things she felt that needed work.

1. Typos - I'm getting better. I've learn a few tricks and it really opened my eyes. As James and Maia have emphasized, I have to learn to do this myself.
2. Trite metaphors.
3. Too early reveal for the killer.

All of these are fixable. This one agent said the typos weren't that bad, and she could overlook them because the story was very compelling and made her turn the page. Her main, and she emphasized main, concern were the trite metaphors and too early reveal of the killer. My killer is a woman, so she would like it held back a little longer because it's a big reveal.

So really, it comes down to the reason my novel hasn't been picked up by an agent is because of my use of metaphors. This was the reason I mentioned it to you DrG2. I need to study the definitions of metaphors, similes, and analogies and how to identify them. It doesn't mean I need to remove all of them, but if I can revise accordingly, then maybe I'm getting better. :D

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Re: Are Similes, Metaphors, and Analogies a Bad Idea?

Postby TerryRodgers » Thu Mar 06, 2014 3:18 pm


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