Metaphor or simile?

Life is a beach. Life is like a beach. It’s a beach. Metaphors and similes are similar in that they compare things, but that’s about where the similarities stop. I feel like in school we give simple answers to help kids or teens tell the difference between the two. But what really is going on with metaphors and similes? Let’s find out (so you can impress your family and friends!).

I think most of us who went to school in North America were taught that a simile uses like or as, and that any other comparison is therefore a metaphor. This does make sense because it is true, but that’s just scratching the surface. What is the purpose of a simile, and when is it used to add to the meaning of a text? But honestly, we recognize these ones right away: As fast as a cheetah. As slow as molasses. Quick like a bunny. Dead as a doornail. Sinks like a hammer.

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

Similes are fun ways to add some description into situations. They provide clear visualizations to add imagery into our speech or text. When we struggle to describe something to someone, we reach for the simile because we know that the imagery that similes provide will add more meaning to a conversation or idea. She was as brave as a lion getting her vaccination today. He swims like a fish. That team trains like Navy SEALs. So similes help to add clarity to our understanding of something by comparing it to something else.

What makes up a simile? Here are some of the “must-haves” for similes:

  • Provides a comparison between two things that highlights a similar attribute or property that both things (or people) share. He runs like a runner. (Clearly this person is good at running, surprisingly.) She eats like a chipmunk. (This person must bunch food in her cheeks.)
  • Gives the reader (or audience) a specific example in action. The two things being compared are specific and provide clarity. It’s simple. It’s direct. It’s helpful. They cried like babies at the end of the film. She’s as busy as a bee today. He’s blinder than a bat sometimes.
  • Uses the words like, as, than to provide a direct comparison to link the two things together. He is quicker than a cheetah. (Clearly he runs super fast.) She sings like a songbird. (She sings beautifully.) They are as loud as a pack of hyenas. (Clearly this group is loud!)
  • Provides clear and concrete imagery about the similarities between two different things. Similes provide a quick and clear way to help clarify a description and provide some engaging imagery for the audience. We are entertained. Often, similes provide humour.

Metaphors. So how are metaphors different? Metaphors are like a simile, but not. (See what I did there?!) Metaphors go deeper. I think of similes as simple, surface-level comparisons with examples are that quick and easy. Put simply, metaphors are a little more profound or complex. For the audience, metaphors require a little more time to digest, process, and understand. Perhaps this is why kids and teen struggle to create or identify metaphors because sometimes they are subtle. She longed for the calm after the storm. He seemed to be swimming in a sea of grief with no shore in sight. She is the black sheep. My kids are couch potatoes.

So what makes a metaphor? Here are some characteristics:

  • Creates comparisons that are direct and full, meaning that something IS something else. He is a volcano of rage when he drives. (Meaning that he explodes a lot and is hot and angry, constantly on edge and spewing.)
  • Uses symbolism to provide depth to an idea or concept. She got cold feet. (Meaning she was frozen and unable to move forward in an action or a decision, not that she was physically cold.)
  • Provides imagery and a creative way of expressing ideas. The Math test today was murder. (Meaning that it was so difficult that no one will survive it.)

There are some different types of metaphors, which might help when writing (and definitely with identifying) them.

  • Direct metaphor: provides a direct comparison that is easy to spot and identify. It’s like a math formula: x=y. Life is a beach. He’s the black sheep. They’re all couch potatoes today.
  • Implied metaphor: the comparisons are not stated explicitly, so more work is required by the audience to determine the exact comparison. The teacher barked her final warning to the unruly class. (comparing the teacher to a dog.) She was lured, over time, into the web. (Comparing the people luring to a spider.) The students were chomping at the bit to begin the experiment. (Comparing the students to eager horses.)
  • Extended metaphor: also known as the sustained metaphor, the metaphor continues over multiple lines or sections of text. This technique is found a lot in poetry and Shakespeare. Look up or Google “extended metaphors” and you’ll find links to all kinds of literature.

Whether you want a comparison quick, easy, and fun, or a comparison that is more complex and robust, similes and metaphors can add a lot of creativity and imagery into your writing. And although it seems counterintuitive to many, similes and metaphors allow us to communicate with more clarity and precision because by using these devices we are able to paint a picture in someone’s mind, and visualizing something helps us understand with more depth. So, happy writing and hopefully you feel more comfortable adding a little imagery into your writing now!

Featured image: Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash