February 10, 2010

How Not to Write a Metaphor

Posted in Creativity, Tools of the Trade at 12:02 am by jajohnson7

In case you forgot your high school English classes, here is the difference between a metaphor and a simile:

metaphor: (n.) a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in “A mighty fortress is our God.”

simile: (n.) a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared, as in “she is like a rose.”

In case you were too lazy to read that, or you didn’t understand it: a metaphor uses “is,” while a simile uses “like” or “as.”

The trick to writing a metaphor or simile is to come up with a striking image, which is harder to do than it sounds. You want to avoid overused phrases like “her voice was angelic” or “the waves crashed on the shore.” But you also don’t want to throw your reader out of the story by mashing your images.

Below are some *ahem* colorful examples of real metaphors/similes that people used in their essays. (If these catch your fancy…well…more power to you!) Either way, enjoy!

Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two other sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

McMurphy fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a paper bag filled with vegetable soup.

Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.

His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a tumble dryer.

She caught your eye like one of those pointy hook latches that used to dangle from doors and would fly up whenever you banged the door open again.

The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the centre.

He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left York at 6:36 p.m. travelling at 55 mph, the other from Petersborough at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

The politician was gone but unnoticed, like the full stop after the Dr. on a Dr Pepper can.

John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

The thunder was ominous sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during the storm scene in a play.

The red brick wall was the colour of a brick-red crayon.

Even in his last years, Grandpa had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long it had rusted shut.

Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

The plan was simple, like my brother Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

Her artistic sense was exquisitely refined, like someone who can tell butter from “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.”

She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like the sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

It came down the stairs looking very much like something no one had ever seen before.

The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a lamppost.

The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free cashpoint.

The dandelion swayed in the gentle breeze like an oscillating electric fan set on medium.

It was a working class tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with their power tools.

He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a dustcart reversing.

She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature British beef.

She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.

The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.



  1. Dan said,

    “The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.”

    Whoever wrote that was clearly a Douglas Adams fan. I don’t feel like getting out the book and looking it up right now, but the quote was something to the effect of, “The Vogon constructor fleet hung in the air in much the same way that bricks don’t.”

    “He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.”

    Meta-metaphor? :p

    • jajohnson7 said,

      haha wow, so apparently that’s a humorous trend that the people who collected these things didn’t recognize. 😉

      I wonder at his choice of animal. Why pick a duck? Why not “lame as a goose” if he wants to avoid the metaphorical lame duck image.

      I wish that thing had said what kind of essays these people were writing that they needed similes in the first place…

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