Metaphors and similes are powerful, time-saving, communication-enhancing devices.

Imagine you’re walking through the jungles of Nigeria and stumble upon an animal that has never been seen by human eyes before. You’re on the radio trying to communicate what it looks like. You could start over and describe every detail—the claws, the fur, the color, the size, shape, teeth, eyes, eye lashes, nose, smell, sound, etc, or you could find something to compare it to and save yourself a lot of time. Maybe you could say it looks like a six-foot tall paisley tiger. See how much easier this is when we use comparisons?

You probably already know that a metaphor is when you refer to something as something it’s not. A simile is when you use the word "like" or "as." But for our purposes here, I don’t care about the distinction and will just use the word metaphor because I like it better.

So metaphors are a great way to get a lot of information across quickly and accurately. But some metaphors can be big losers, too. In order to decide whether your comparison is effective or not, make sure it falls somewhere in the middle of the metaphor continuum:

When the two items being compared by your metaphor have too little in common, the metaphor fails. Instead of communicating a large amount of valuable information, you force the reader to rule out too many aspects of the items to find those that they have in common. They could sound like these:

Pretty refreshing, no? No!! Fifty-foot waves drag you across the ground, scraping the skin from your body; they pound you against anything in their path, snapping bones under their weight; they spin you around violently, filling your lungs with water, your eyes with salt, your heart with the wish that you had never felt that refreshing ocean wave.

On the other end of the spectrum, comparisons with too much in common also fail. You might as well just say what the thing is. Comparisons with too much in common don’t add any valuable information.

What you’re looking for in the metaphor department is something in the middle. Something with a lot in common, but that’s not the same thing.

We’re not talking about a comparison here, either. If you say that a satellite dish is a like cable tv with ten times as many channels…well, it’s true, but there’s no clever comparison here. It’s like the brown circles with black dots. It’s like the 6’3" tree guy. They’re practically the same.

Wanna see more funny comparisons?


Having trouble creating a good metaphor of your own? Here’s what you do:

Here’s an example:

Say you need a metaphor for your Aunt Bernice. What’s she like? Meticulous, clean, demanding, not very attractive, stoic, traditional, and not very kind. Sort of a cross between Mary Poppins and the Wicked Witch of the West. Well there you have it. And you can work it smoothly into your writing like this (called an "allusion," where you don’t even come out and mention what you’re comparing):

Aunt Bernice floated in to our home to "tend" us every Spring, and left us longing for the time when the winds would change and carry her away again. We often discussed the possibility of dousing her with water in hopes that she would simply melt away.

Another example:

Being caught in an avalanche. You have very little control, you’re being carried to possible or probable death, it’s cold and frantic, you’re scared….

Now I know how the one lemming feels when she sees the cliff and the ocean coming up fast. She wants to turn around, but the masses carry her forward. If only she had turned around before it came to this.

Maybe it’s not a very good one, but hey, that’s brainstorming. If you don’t like it, keep searching till you find something better.