So, you have a rough first draft of a scene, a chapter, or a full manuscript. At this stage, your work may read a little flat, a little dull and humdrum. It may be full of vague words, adverbs, and cliches. Now you want to polish it, add some life and pizzazz. But where to begin?
Since becoming a student of Margie Lawson, I’ve learned literally dozens of ways to add freshness, power, and emotional depth to my work. Today, I’m going to focus on one aspect—similes and metaphors.
A couple of definitions first. A simile compares something to something else, often using words like as or like. A cliched example would be: Her face looks like thunder. A metaphor states that something is something else. Her face is thunder.
For simplicity, I’ll talk more about similes, but you can use the same ideas for metaphors.
- They’re fun. If you have fun with your writing, it shines through in your work. Your reader will pick up on that sense of pleasure in your writing, and they’ll want to read more.
- They’re versatile. You can apply a simile to almost anything you want to describe. Not just descriptions of characters or settings, but also visceral responses, dialogue cues, body language, actions, senses. Your characters can use them in dialogue or in thoughts. I’ll give some examples further down.
- They add power and depth to your work. You can use similes to deepen character or to evoke specific emotions. Show us who your character is by their word choices and where their mind goes. Or reveal hints of backstory about your character. Share a character’s fear or anger through their word choices. Or give a sinister twist to the scene, or add a humour hit. (Note – I’m from the UK, so use different spellings of some words).
I’ll use some examples from my current WIP—a YA fantasy with romantic elements—to illustrate what I mean.
Here’s an unadorned dialogue cue: His voice is deep and resonant.
And here’s a reworked version, using a simile. His voice resonates through my chest, deep and shivery, like the boom of breaking surf.
The first version is okay, but can you feel the power of the second version? The simile draws us deeper into the scene. Instead of being told his voice is resonant, we can feel that resonance. The breaking surf comparison is both character-themed and scene-themed: our heroine, the POV character, lives by the sea, and the scene takes place on cliffs above the sea.
The word choices give a sense of danger: shivery, boom, breaking, but also share elements of romance: the attractiveness of a deep male voice, the romance of surf breaking on a seashore. And all of this feeds into the set-up: the heroine is in the hero’s arms, having grabbed onto him after a near fall off the cliffs. She doesn’t trust him yet but can’t help being attracted to him. Of course, your reader won’t analyse the sentence like this, but subconsciously they’ll pick up on some or all of the ideas I’ve discussed. We’re adding depth and emotion.
Guidelines for using similes
- They should be appropriate to the character. You may have thought of a brilliant simile, but if it isn’t something your character would think or say, then it’s not going to sound authentic. Your reader will be drawn out of the story instead of being pulled in deep, so deep they can’t put the book down.
- They should be appropriate to the situation. Similarly, you need to consider the emotional tone of the scene. If your characters are in a tense situation, you’ll want to deepen that experience, not diffuse emotional power by using an inappropriate light-hearted reference. (Unless that’s your intent – sometimes we need a little lightness in a dark situation.) Or if you’re describing a nervous character, you’ll want to use words that reflect that nervousness.
- Like any rhetorical device, don’t overuse them. Too many similes too close together may become noticeable and will draw your reader out of the story. You may want to analyse a chapter or two of your work and count the similes you’ve used. Do you have several to a page? Could be too many. Do you have very few? Maybe you could use some more, to liven up a description, a dialogue cue, a visceral response.
- Avoid cliche. As quiet as a mouse. As brave as a lion. Boring. We’ve heard them so many times they have no power. Aim for fresh. Original. Quirky. Interesting.
But—how to come up with fresh ideas? Ever tried to find a fresh description and come up blank? I’ll share some ideas for moving forward from that blank spot, starting with this one:
I actually enjoy writing similes and tend to overuse them – I have to rein myself in. For me the key is to have fun and play around with words and ideas, always relating it back to my characters. I try to use comparisons to things that would be a part of their world, or that relate to their particular quirks and interests.
For example, my heroine is a teenage sci-fi and fantasy nerd and a big fan of the Marvel Universe, so I’ll use references to that. She studies science and wants to become a doctor, so some of the references are more scientific. Other times I just use things that are commonplace in her world (modern-day Britain) eg cling-film in an example below (Saran wrap in the US).
- Shock slams into me like the wrath of Thor’s hammer.
Analysis: the simile describes a visceral response. Character-themed—refers to Thor from the Marvel movies of which our heroine is a fan. Power words: shock, slams, wrath, Thor, hammer. The sentence is backloaded with a power word: hammer.
- My heart vooms hard against my ribcage, a single jolt like a defibrillator’s high voltage shock. (Another visceral response, power words in bold)
- Demons cluster round him like iron filings round a magnet.
- Something’s holding me fast, like I’m wrapped in cling-film.
- The warrior’s like a drug, and though I fight, I’m an addict. I share his fear and the roller-coaster rush of living life with nothing held back, knowing any second could be the last. I’m hooked.
Set-up: the heroine has been having ultra-realistic dreams about a young warrior. This example shares her thoughts about the dreams and is a mix of simile and metaphor – he’s like a drug, she is an addict. I go on to amplify the drug simile/metaphor by using words like rush and hooked in the following sentences. Power words in bold.
My other POV character is a warrior from an alternate reality. Some of the similes I use for him are related to weapons or to objects/elements (real or imaginary) from his world. This character uses more gritty, earthy word choices, has a wry sense of humour, and a bit of a chip on his shoulder (cliché alert) which also comes across in some of these similes.
- The guard’s words thud home, arrows right on target.
Analysis: Metaphor describing the effect of the guard’s dialogue. Character themed words for a warrior – arrows on target. Power words in bold.
- He looks me up and down like I’m a fly-blown slab of meat.
- Harad wears a look that’s part tetchy, part bored, like he’d rather clean latrines than talk to me.
Analysis: Humour hit, sharing a facial expression. Character themed – the POV character is a warrior/soldier – he’ll know about cleaning latrines
- I’m gaping like a river trout, my mind as empty.
- She finds a boulder to her liking, and settles on it like the Empress of Pursea on her jewelled throne.
That last one was obviously made-up. The reader doesn’t know who the Empress of Pursea is, but it’s something the character would know, same as we’d understand a reference to the King of Siam.
Other times I’ll try to relate a simile to the character’s home-turf, their stamping ground. My teen heroine lives in Whitby, a seaside town near the North Yorkshire Moors, so for her I’ve used references to the sea (see earlier) and to the moors:
- Rage rolls off him like smoke from blazing moorland.
My young warrior character has never seen the sea, so he doesn’t use those references. He’s spent time in the desert, so I’ll use that as a reference:
- Shapes swirl inside my mind, hazy, indistinct, like something glimpsed through a sandstorm. I clamp my hands to my skull, but the haze won’t clear.
If I had a character from the mean streets of New York, or Chicago for example, I’d try and theme similes to things they’d know Eg As loud as a New York traffic jam. (I’m sure you could do better.)
Similes can also relate to the things/people we want to describe, so for example when my teen protag encounters one of the Old Folk (a kind of faery/gnome, who lives in the forest) I used these similes:
- No bigger than a toddler, its skin is dark and leathery, wrinkled and corded like tree-bark.
- Wispy growth trails from its chin, grey-green like moss, or lichen.
To recap on Writing Fresh:
Let’s be clear—these ideas don’t just pop into my head fully formed. They’ll start off as a seed, a glimmer, a twinkling, and I need to work on them and polish them to get them to shine.
There are many ways to come up with fresh ideas. Here’s a summary of a few options.
- Think about your character, where they live, what they know, what their quirks and interests are. Or to think about the scene/the people/things they’re describing and use word choices reflecting that, character or scene or emotion-themed words.
This has the added benefit that you’re likely to come up with something fresh, something that deepens character, and something that gives both your character and your work a unique voice.
- Work with the first idea which comes to mind (which is likely to be quite cliché, that’s the way our minds work). Then try and amplify or twist that cliché or change it to something more related to the scene or the character.
Below, I’ll share some basic, cliched examples, and then the reworked versions:
Basic: My head thumps like a drum. (POV is my warrior from another world)
Reworked: My head thumps like two-dozen Kepushay war-drums.
Basic: My thoughts are speeding like a train (for my teen modern-day protag),
Reworked: My thoughts are speeding like a Japanese bullet train.
Basic (for the same character): The smile hits me like a train/truck/steamroller.
Reworked: The smile hits me like a motorway pile-up, crash after crash after crash of realisation.(Another amplified simile)
- Brainstorm ideas. I’ll take a basic line I want to freshen and write down six or more versions. This sounds laborious, but I write down stuff fairly quickly. I don’t think too hard about it. By the time I get to six I’m starting to come up with something fresh, though it will still probably need some polishing to get right. When I’m Deep Editing my work, I may write down a list of all the lines I need to freshen, then work through them.
- Do something different. When my mind blanks, I’ll get up, move around. Sometimes an idea will come to me if I go for a walk or do the dishes. Or sometimes after I’ve had a break, my brain is unstuck enough that when I go back to write the ideas start to flow again.
- Ask friends or family for ideas. When I’m really stuck, I’ll ask for help with ideas. My husband and daughter came up with: as creaky as Deadpool’s Crocs (You have to have seen the movie). But with fun things like that it doesn’t always matter if your reader doesn’t completely get the reference, they’ll know enough to get the idea.
Here’s a few more similes and metaphors, grouped into categories to showcase the many different ways you can use them. Enjoy!
Similes for fun
- Sir Beverell watches me like I’m a performing dog-turd. (Body language)
- Beverell’s smile is thinner than a gnat’s dick. (Facial expression)
I hope you can see here what I mean about having fun writing similes. These last two were fun to write – and I hope to read. They also deepen character, both of the POV character and his superior officer, Sir Beverell, and deepen the conflict between the two. I should add the two examples are a few pages apart – could be too much if both on the same page.
More facial expressions
- His face distorts like lump-iron in a furnace, not sure what shape to hold.
- His expression slowly lightens, like a dark butterfly lifted off.
- My voice is smaller than a dust-mite’s.
- I sound like a whiny kid.
- Her tone is sharper than a fish-wife’s blade.
- I force words into my throat. They crawl up, slow as toads.
- His words sink like red-hot stones into the pit of my belly. Weighty and scary as hell.
Body language and actions
- I unlock my frozen body and morph into a screaming, shouting stop-sign, leaping up and down like a cheerleader crazed on crystal meth.
- I catch the wraith too low, on the shoulder. The sword snags, slows, dragging like a stick through porridge.
Sensations and visceral responses
- My heart bounces, frantic as a trapped bird.
- Disappointment is a cold wave crashing over me, relief a too-small towel. (Metaphor)
- A ringing silence echoes through my head, isolating me from the noise and confusion, as if I’m underwater in a swimming pool. (Simile using as if to show the comparison)
- My mind feels like a warzone, bombed into oblivion.
Similes in dialogue
- ‘Fecking do it, or I’ll slit you open like a pig.’
- ‘I think danger follows that boy around like a love-sick dog.’
Similes in thought
- I’m going to die. The knowledge presses down on me, a hunchback-monster riding my shoulders.
Similes for settings
- Stars glitter like a dragon’s hoard spilled on black velvet, and the moons seem so close I could reach out and touch them.
- Below me, the city hulks like a sleeping lion, dark and menacing against the moonlit desert.
Similes that deepen character
- Cale sprawls in his chair like a boxer in a ringside corner. Silent and brooding, watching his opponent. His pent-up energy fills the room, an unexploded cluster-bomb.
- Cale paces to one side, checking out every shadow, every corner, like a gunslinger expecting trouble.
These next two describe a more nervous character:
- He bobs his head like a nervy woodpecker.
- ‘So, you’ll talk to us?’ Robert asks, cautious as a kitten in new snow.
So there you have it! I hope this piece will stir up your creative juices and spark some ideas of where and how to power up your work using fresh similes and metaphors.
And remember—have fun!
Becky Rawnsley is a physical
therapist from the UK. She started writing as a hobby some twenty years
ago, but realized if she was ever going to get off the slush-pile and
onto the shelves, she needed help. Hunting for answers, she stumbled
across Margie’s website and struck writing-gold.
Becky is now a
multi-Margie, multi-LWA and Immersion grad, and has discovered a passion
for deepening her understanding of writing craft. Her work now
regularly finals in contests. She is keen to share the magic of Margie’s
Big Three courses to help fellow writers bring their work to the next
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