Simile vs. Metaphor: What’s the Difference?
Novice writers sometimes find that creative writing is a challenging task. Expressing your thoughts through a story or poem can be tricky. Many writers aren’t sure how to make their writing interesting, exciting, and lifelike. Fortunately, figurative language can help us achieve this goal.
Figurative language creates images in the reader’s mind. It builds a mental link between two concepts. With figurative language, writers can share complex thoughts and ideas. They can also help readers picture what’s happening in the story or the poem.
Last Updated June 2020
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So how do we use figurative language? We begin by exploring literary devices like similes or metaphors. These devices help us compare two different concepts. With similes and metaphors, we can express our meaning more clearly. Mastering similes and metaphors also helps us understand books, poems, and plays. We can use our figurative language skills to analyze the author’s meaning.
Let’s start by taking a look at a common form of figurative language: metaphor.
What is a metaphor?
A metaphor compares one thing to another. Metaphors aren’t literal. Instead, they encourage readers to make a comparison between both concepts. Readers explore two things and look for similarities. Metaphors often give writing a poetic flair. We can also use metaphors to liven up our speech.
Metaphors are less complicated than they sound. In fact, you probably use metaphors on a daily basis. Take a look at these examples:
- My kitchen is the heart of my home.
- Janine is an early bird.
- Grandma’s hair is bone white.
What do you think each of these metaphors means?
Let’s start with the first example: My kitchen is the heart of my home. The heart is a vital organ that pumps blood throughout our bodies. We rely on our hearts to survive. This metaphor suggests that the kitchen is the most vital part of the home.
Now let’s move on to the second example: Janine is an early bird. Many birds wake up at dawn. They start exploring the world as soon as the sun rises. This metaphor suggests that Janine is also active in the early morning.
Reread the third example: Grandma’s hair is bone white. Most bones are a bright shade of white. They have no color whatsoever. This metaphor suggests that Grandma’s hair is also very white.
As we look at these examples, we notice that metaphors let us compare two things. Through comparisons, we express our thoughts succinctly. We liven up our writing, too. The phrase, “Grandma’s hair is very white,” is a bit dull. But the phrase, “Grandma’s hair is bone white,” creates a clear mental picture. It helps our readers stay engaged.
Now let’s look at a more complex metaphor.
But soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
William Shakespeare’s famous play, Romeo and Juliet, uses a lot of metaphors. In the example above, Romeo compares his beloved Juliet to the sun. She appears in the room, and he imagines her as the rising sun. Her presence seems to create light. This metaphor helps us understand Romeo’s deep love for Juliet.
In the following passage, Shakespeare uses an extended metaphor. Let’s take a look:
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
Here, Romeo continues his comparison: Juliet is his sun. He argues that she outshines other ladies, comparing them to the moon. Unlike the sun, the moon doesn’t produce light. The moon can only reflect sunlight. Romeo suggests that Juliet is the only woman who truly “shines.” The other women can’t compare, and they’re jealous of her.
In this extended metaphor, Shakespeare helps readers understand what Romeo thinks and feels. We recognize that he loves Juliet and admires her more than any other woman. He considers her the “light of his life,” and other women pale beside her. Those feelings help explain Romeo’s decisions later on in the play. This metaphor gives us an important insight into Romeo’s state of mind.
Now let’s take a look at another figure of speech: the simile.
What is a simile?
A simile is a type of metaphor. But unlike metaphors, similes make a direct connection between two concepts. A simile uses the words “like” or “as” to reinforce the connection.
Let’s take a look at some common similes:
- Last week, Annie was as busy as a bee.
- After winning the tournament, Jose was as happy as a clam.
- My overpacked suitcase was like lead.
Similes draw a stronger connection than metaphors. While metaphors can be abstract and poetic, similes are more concrete. They don’t just encourage readers to think about similarities. Instead, they emphasize those similarities.
Like metaphors, similes can make our writing more unique. Similes add a dash of color to our speech, too. But be careful not to overuse similes. Keep in mind that similes always use the word “like” or “as.” If you overuse similes, your speech or writing may become repetitive. It’s best to use similes sparingly.
Sometimes, similes can become overused. For example, many people use phrases like “busy as a bee” or “happy as a clam.” If you want to produce original writing, you may decide not to use these common similes. We’ll talk more about clichés later on.
Simile vs metaphor
Ready to practice? Take a look at the following list. It contains six metaphors and six similes. Can you categorize each example of figurative language?
Tip: Remember the look for the words “like” or “as.” Those are surefire signs that you’re dealing with a simile.
- Mia is as tall as a giraffe.
- I was lost in a sea of chaos.
- My car was as shiny as a new penny.
- His eyes were bright embers.
- This vacuum cleaner is as light as a feather.
- My English teacher has a heart of stone.
- She has a memory like a sieve.
- My best friend is a rolling stone.
- My little brother eats like a horse.
- She has the courage of a lion.
- Once we turned on the air conditioner, the room was as cold as ice.
- My science teacher planted seeds of curiosity in our minds.
That’s right: each odd-numbered example is a simile. The even-numbered examples are metaphors.
As we discussed, similes tend to be straightforward. They draw a direct comparison between two things. Metaphors require a little more thought.
What does it mean to have “the courage of a lion”? What does a “bright ember” look like? We need to think hard to understand these comparisons. But these metaphors help create a picture in our mind. We can use that mental picture to understand the writer’s true meaning.
Ready to try a few advanced examples? Let’s look at some metaphors from classic literature.
All the world’s a stage,
and men and women merely players.
This famous example from Shakespeare’s As You Like It compares life to a play. Shakespeare argues that human beings are merely actors. He claims that humans can play different roles during their lifetime:
To be, or not to be; that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them.
In this example from Hamlet, Shakespeare compares life’s troubles to a battlefield. The speaker, Hamlet, wonders whether he should fight back against his “enemy” or give up.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare compares his beloved to a beautiful summer day. He uses an extended metaphor, discussing heat and sunshine. In these comparisons, he describes his beloved using references to nature.
The dangers of mixed metaphors
Metaphors can be effective tools. But like any tool, we must make sure to use them correctly. If we use metaphors incorrectly, our readers might become confused. Many writers create confusion by using mixed metaphors.
Mixed metaphors occur when a writer combines different metaphors. Sometimes, metaphors can work well together. But often, metaphors imply different things. Mixing metaphors can leave your reader unsure about the comparison you’ve made.
Let’s take a look at an example of a mixed metaphor:
I smell a rat, and I plan to nip him in the bud.
If you “smell a rat,” then you sense someone is deceitful or dishonest. This metaphor compares a dishonest person to a rat. But this example includes another metaphor: to nip a problem in the bud. When we “nip something in the bud,” we resolve the issue in the early stages. This metaphor compares the situation to a flower that hasn’t bloomed yet.
By mixing metaphors, we create confusion. Is the person a rat or a flower? Are we killing the rat or pruning a plant? It’s not clear what image readers should picture.
Mixed metaphors can be humorous, but most of the time, they’re just puzzling. It’s always best to use one metaphor at a time. By separating metaphors, we can clear up confusion. Our readers are able to understand our meaning and follow our thought process.
What is an analogy?
Similes and metaphors liven up your writing. They add a poetic flair and draw readers into the narrative. But analogies go one step further.
Like similes and metaphors, an analogy compares two things. The goal of an analogy is to make a point. Take a look at the following example:
Memory is to love what the saucer is to the cup.
Here, author Elizabeth Bowen asks us to think about the relationship between a cup and a saucer. We know that a cup typically rests on a saucer. We can guess that the author suggests that love depends on memory. Memory acts as the foundation and support for love.
Analogies are a bit more complex than metaphors or similes. In analogies, writers provide information or context. They offer up an explanation and encourage readers to think deeply about the topic. The example above urges readers to explore the relationships between love and memory.
Blending different types of literary devices
You can use several different literary devices in your speech or writing. By blending similes and metaphors, you keep your writing unpredictable and exciting. You can also ensure that your writing is accessible to many different readers.
Similes and metaphors sometimes serve as regionalisms. A regionalism is a language that marks where you’re from and what language you speak. Regionalisms aren’t a bad thing. In fact, many celebrated authors use regionalisms. Regionalisms can add color, style, and originality to your writing.
But sometimes, regionalism can be puzzling for readers who grew up in a different part of the world. For example, a phrase like “happy as a clam” might confuse some readers. Similes and metaphors can be unclear. Your readers may be unfamiliar with your language, culture, or reference points.
As you start a new writing project, think about your audience. Ask yourself what words or phrases your audience might be unfamiliar with. You may want to omit these figures of speech from your writing.
What is a cliché?
As you study metaphors and similes, you might run across the same phrase many times. Many people use the same popular similes and metaphors. You might hear them in casual conversation or read them in a newspaper. Overused similes and metaphors can become clichés.
Clichés can make readers feel bored or annoyed. They usually aren’t the most effective way to express your thoughts. As a beginning writer, it’s fine to practice using common similes and metaphors. But as your skills develop, pay attention to your use of clichés. Many experts recommend that advanced students avoid using common similes and metaphors. Sometimes, it’s better to use plain language than to use a trite, overused expression.
Professional writers often use a lot of simple descriptions. If you struggle to use figurative language, there’s nothing wrong with using a plain description. Similes and metaphors help bring your writing to life, but they aren’t the only technique available. Clear, straightforward descriptions can often be just as effective.Do you need help improving your English? Udemy can help. Take a look at our course listings for English and creative writing. Our articles can also help you understand complex sentences and figurative language.
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