Remember those old black and white movies, often romances, when everything was suggested or implied and nothing of a sexual nature was actually seen on screen? Probably a bit before your time. Everything is so much more explicit these days; nothing is left to the imagination. But you know the sort of thing I mean – the suggestion of a sexual encounter using a visual metaphor. For example: the couple on the train taking advantage of their otherwise empty carriage, look longingly into each other’s eyes, maybe a furtive kiss before they pull down the blinds. Then we cut to the train entering a tunnel.
Like I said: probably before your time.
We can take a leaf out of the film director’s book and use metaphor to enrich our writing. A metaphor is a figure of speech, used, along with its stable mates simile and analogy to make a comparison between unrelated objects, actions and situations in order to imply a resemblance for explanatory, illustrative or ornamental purposes. The terms metaphor and simile are often bandied around as if they mean exactly the same thing. They don’t. There are subtle differences. A simile is a form of metaphor, but not all metaphors are similes. Got all that? Me neither, so let’s unpick the differences.
A simile is a form of metaphor that compares two different things to create a new meaning. It is more explicit and literal than a metaphor; it uses the word like or as to make a comparison. It is more immediate, likening a person or a scene to something that denotes an attribute such as size, strength, or the number of cigarettes they smoke: as big as a house; as strong as an ox; smokes like a chimney.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that uses one thing to mean another and makes a comparison between the two. It is a condensed simile, a shortcut to meaning, which omits as and like. A metaphor creates a direct relationship but leaves more to the imagination, transferring the sense of one word to another. With simile A is like B; with metaphor A is B. You are my sunshine; he is a pig; all the world’s a stage. A good metaphor should be seamless; invisible to the reader unless they’re looking for it.
An analogy is comparable to metaphor and simile in that it shows how two different things are similar. Analogy is often used to help provide insight by comparing an unknown subject to one that is more familiar. It can also show a relationship between pairs of things by pointing out shared characteristics. An analogy is usually a lot longer than either a simile or metaphor because it’s being used to compare one situation to another. Unlike a metaphor, it won’t be a direct statement, and unlike a simile, it won’t be a simple comparison.
Writing as all about painting pictures and these guys can help. But we have to be ready to play with language and ideas. Metaphors, similes and analogies can not only make our writing more interesting but also help us to think more carefully about our subjects. They make comparisons but these aren’t to be taken literally. They are figurative statements designed to add depth to the description. To pull the wool over someone’s eyes doesn’t mean literally pull their woolly hat down over their face so they can’t see; it’s a metaphor that paints the picture that somehow the view of the person is interfered with. Pulling wool over that person’s eyes is a figurative illustration that the person’s vision is clouded.
But we need to proceed with caution. Many similes and metaphors have been used so often that they have become clichés. We use them in speech, but we should avoid these overworked phrases at all costs in our writing. Using an expression that has been overused can have a negative effect. To have impact, our metaphors and similes needs to be original or unique to the idea we’re trying to convey.
So, which to use? A metaphor carries more power than a simile, because it’s direct. Using like or as to make a comparison will often weaken the vivid imagery you’re trying to create. But an appropriate and original metaphor will spark instant understanding for a reader, without the elaboration that an analogy requires.
The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor – Aristotle