What’s the difference between a simile and a metaphor? Well, that’s not difficult. See that bartender over there? At the bar, silly, where else? Yes, him. He’s a big fella, right? But poets and writers and, come to think of it, the rest of us get sick of using literal language all the time: ‘He’s big’, ‘He’s huge’, ‘he’s massive’ – yawn. So we use figurative language instead, ‘figures of speech’ that is, that aren’t literally true, but make our language bolder, more vivid and more emphatic. ‘The bartender was an ox’ is a metaphor – you’re calling him an ox because he’s huge, although he may have some other ox-like qualities, slow-wittedness, for example. ‘The bartender was built like an ox’ is a simile, the important word here being ‘like’, and it’s perfectly clear that you attribute this to him because he is huge, and for no other reason.
‘Ah, I see,’ you say. ‘So a metaphor is calling someone or something something else, while a simile is saying that someone or something is like something else.’ Well, yes – but how many martinis have you had?
There’s a more important question about similes and metaphors, though, and that is this: what makes a simile or metaphor effective?
First, the simile or metaphor in question should be vivid – it should help us picture the object, person or action being described. If somebody lies on the floor like a ragged sack, it conjures the picture of something lifeless or destitute. We should try to avoid clichés and well-worn figures of speech, especially imprecise ones – except perhaps in jest: ‘the teacher came down on me like a tonne of bricks’ is a humorous phrase meaning nothing more than she was very angry and shouted a lot – the bricks don’t tell us anything about the way in which she lost her temper; it’s just an expression. ‘The teacher screamed at me like a banshee’ on the other hand, brings an image to mind, particularly to viewers of Smallville:
Tone is important too. Consider this: ‘The killer was catching up with her now, weapon in hand, and just at the wrong moment she tripped and fell, hitting the ground like a sack of potatoes.’ There’s something a bit comical about this simile that undermines the tension of the story, however much it might convey the idea of an uncontrolled weight hitting the ground with force. ‘Sack of potatoes’ is what your parents used to call you when you were getting too old to carry. What is needed is a simile that keeps with the scary atmosphere: ‘hitting the ground like a dead weight’ or ‘hitting the ground, already, perhaps, a corpse’.
If it is describing a person, a metaphor or simile should also fit that person’s character. In Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, George describes his friend Lennie as ‘strong as an ox’, complimenting him on his handy work on the ranch. But Steinbeck knows that Lennie is no harmless grazing creature, though strong he is. When Steinbeck uses animalistic language to describe Lennie, he describes him in terms that sound bear-like – a better match for the big man whose strength can be destructive.
See that guy at the bar over there? No, not the bartender – the other one. What kind of person is he? Write a short description using effective metaphors.