39. Vivid Imagery Part 2: Metaphorically More

Author: Nola Published: about 2 years ago.
Tags: similes, metaphors, imagery, anachronisms, setting, theme Category: Writing tips

In Part 1 of this series, I gave five suggestions for using metaphors and similes in your work. Here are a few more tips to ensure your metaphors and similes are more like the chocolate icing on a mud cake than the doggy doo on your shoe (unless that’s what you're aiming for).

Ensure they make sense. ‘Her voice was like a stick of liquorice in a jar of boiled lollies.’ Huh? What sound is conveyed by a stick of liquorice in a jar of boiled lollies? Is it the clanking sound as you stir the lollies with the liquorice? Does it mean her voice seemed out of place with the others in the room? The author obviously had something in mind, but the reader is left clueless.

Avoid mixed metaphors. These occur when you combine two metaphors, similes or clichés that don’t really go together and thus create a confusing image. For example, ‘This toothache is a pain in the butt’. Um … I’m not sure where your teeth are, but …

Avoid anachronisms. In the movie Braveheart, Mel Gibson strikes a dashing figure in his kilt. The only problem is that kilts weren’t invented for another four centuries. That’s an example of an anachronism—something that is out of place in a particular time period. If your novel is set in the 1880s, you can’t say your hero’s snoring was so loud it sounded like a jet taking off. However, you can say his snoring was like a locomotive or a fog horn. Click here to see more examples of anachronisms in well-known movies.

Match the setting or theme. Are you writing a rural romance? Try including some metaphors or similes with a rural flavour (‘Her hair was the colour of rust on a corrugated tin roof’). You wouldn’t want to overdo these, but a well-placed one can really add some punch to your narrative. Anthony Doerr’s short story So Many Chances tells of a family from America’s mid-west that moves to coastal Maine to start a new life. The daughter is entranced by all of the new things she discovers on the beach, but her mother is discontent. By the time we read that ‘her mother’s face retreats inside itself like a poked sea anemone,’ the contrast is palpable.

Use extended metaphors. If you have an important scene, you can also use extended metaphors for added impact. For example, think of the country girl with the rust-coloured hair. You could keep that imagery going by describing other aspects of her appearance or personality in rural terms (e.g. eyes the colour of cornflowers; disposition like an electric cattle prod).

Why not review your latest work-in-progress and see if there are places where you could add some pizazz through a scintillating metaphor or simile. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your favourite mixed metaphors.

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