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Simile vs. Metaphor: Smackdown!

Senior WD editor Robert Lee Brewer explains the key differences between the simile and the metaphor.

The title to this post makes it sound like I'm going to have similes breaking chairs across metaphors' backs. Maybe metaphors will pin similes. As if.

(Using Poetry Techniques to Polish Your Fiction)

Similes and metaphors both have their uses in poetry. I don't want to say that one is always better than the other, because they are both devices of communication that serve poets (and other writers) well. Just in case you don't know the difference, here's what they mean:

Metaphor: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase takes on the meaning of another word or phrase to suggest a likeness between the two.

Here's a metaphor in action: My heart is a train pounding down the tracks.

Simile: a figure of speech comparing two unlike things as if they are alike, usually while using the words like or as.

Here's a simile in action: My heart is like a train pounding down the tracks.

Here's another simile: My heart pounds as if it were a train on the tracks.

Simile vs. Metaphor: Smackdown!

In poetry, I generally prefer metaphors unless I have a good reason to use a simile. Here are a few reasons why I prefer metaphors:

  • Economy of language. Removing the word like (or as) equals one less word that detracts from the meaning of the poem.
  • Stronger language. My heart is a train is a stronger statement than my heart is like a train.
  • More authoritative. Metaphors are what they are. Similes are kind of like what they are. There's room for the reader to question, how is my heart like a train? Unless that's the purpose of the poem, it distracts the reader for no good reason. Unintentional distractions weaken poems.

Similes also beg to have more follow up. That is, poets usually feel the need to follow up a line like My heart is like a train pounding down the tracks with another few lines that explain why the poet feels this way. Poets who use the metaphor have the description option available to them, but they're more than likely rushing on to their next point in the poem (like trains pounding down the tracks—sorry I had to throw that in there).

So why use similes at all?

Similes are very useful in communication. Not every this is a that. Sometimes a this needs to be like a that, whether we're talking hearts and trains or mouths and moons.

Another reason: Similes can help a poet hit a certain syllable count. It's not the best reason to use a simile instead of a metaphor, but there you go.

Bring out the prompts!

I thought it might be fun to break out some writing prompts, in which you can come up with your own inventive metaphors and/or similes. I'll supply the first half of the statement; you can do the second half. I encourage you to incorporate any new or unusual metaphors or similes into your poems.

Her smile is...

The hospital...

Just before evening, the sun...

My mouth is...

Bats are...

Grammar and Mechanics

No matter what type of writing you do, mastering the fundamentals of grammar and mechanics is an important first step to having a successful writing career.

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