Metaphors–Like Frosting on Your Story

Hmm…metaphor or simile?

So what exactly is a metaphor?  The dictionary defines it as a figure of speech in which an expression is used to refer to something that it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity.  So what is a simile?  It’s defined as a figure of speech that expresses a resemblance between things of different kinds.  Sound similar?  They are, but while similes are always metaphors, metaphors are not always similes.

I know…confusing.  Similes nearly always begin with as or like.  For example, in my new middle grade novel, FINDING PARADISE, twelve-year-old Emma stares out of the Greyhound bus window at the remnants of the spring snow on the prairie,  likening it to “white stubble on an old man’s chin.”  That is both a simile and a metaphor.  Contrast this with Hemingway’s famous novel “The Old Man and the Sea” in which he talks of the sea as if it “is” a woman…not “like” a woman.  Woman is a metaphor for the sea.  A simile compares two things that are alike in one way.  To say “she’s as slow as a turtle,” refers to one trait, slowness, whereas to say “she’s a turtle” suggests multiple likenesses–slow movements, hard shell, timid, etc.   Metaphors and similes can strengthen an author’s writing if used well, and not overused.  Too many likes, and the reader may, like, put the book on the shelf.  And stay away from traditional metaphors:  strong as an ox, fat as a pig, frosting on the cake.  I believe  the most effective metaphors encompass the tone of the story, and draw on elements in the story, often relating to the theme.  In FINDING PARADISE, Emma has run from an orphanage in search of a man who may or may not be her grandfather…thus the white stubble on an old man’s chin.  In Katherine Hannigan’s novel, IDA B, young Ida B’s world is perfect.  She loves being home-schooled and spending every free second outside with the trees and the brook.  So when her mother is diagnosed with cancer, turning Ida B’s life upside down, she compares cancer to “bugs in a tree:  one day you don’t see them at all, and the next it seems like they’re everywhere, eating the leaves and the fruit.”  For me, incorporating objects and themes from your story into your metaphors, if done well, is an effective tool for enhancing the mood you’re trying to create.  So instead of the “frosting on the cake,” perhaps it’s the “tiara on a little girl’s head.”

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