What makes a good metaphor? That’s like what makes a good wine. No, that’s a simile, not a metaphor. And it’s not a very good one, either. It was just the first thing that came to my mind.
I see lots of similes and metaphors in the short stories and flash that arrive in the submission queue at TLR; it’s a popular technique and sometimes it causes me to stop reading. When I do, it’s often not because of wonderful writing, but because it’s brought the story to a halt while I roll my eyes or type “ouch” in the Submittable notes box.
I suspect that many bad similes and metaphors are the product of first impulse. They seem easy and disconnected. They strike me as lazy writing. They are the writer thinking he can jot down the first image that comes to mind. The setting sun looked like a huge rubber ball about to bounce off the plains. (Ouch.) They are the writer’s subconscious letting the writer off the hook from the hard work that is good writing.
Sometimes those weak similes and metaphors are intended to be clever. But clever is not creative. Clever is the writer saying, “Look at my writing; look at me.” Creative is the writer saying, “See what we can do with language. We can explore the hidden connections among the aspects of our existence.”
A good simile or metaphor is just as difficult to write as the description it is intended to replace—perhaps harder, since it must discover and convey relationships among disparate objects or ideas and make them seem as though they should be connected. The best of them make connections across not only physical space, but among different senses.
I searched the web for a while before coming up with what I believe are examples of good simile and metaphor. This is from Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaid’s Tale: “Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.” She expands the simile by comparing time to water, and uses it to create a second simile, the “woman of sand.”
Here’s another from Franz Kafka: “A belief is like a guillotine, just as heavy, just as light.” I love how he incorporates irony and synesthesia to encourage the reader to examine the meaning of belief, and at the same time challenges the reader’s perception of the guillotine.
Those similes are far from simple comparisons.
Take a look at the work of really good writers, and you’ll have a hard time finding any similes, especially weak ones. In fact, many excellent writers try never to use similes or metaphors. Esther Freud has said, “Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up during a sunset in chapter eleven. I still blush when I come across it.”
And here’s my old favorite, Gordon Lish: “Shun conventional metaphor, making your metaphor of your prose itself. Individual analogies subtract from the overall metaphorical effect of the piece.”
When you consider employing simile and metaphor in your writing, ask if you even need them. Try at first to create the intended images in the minds of your readers by using exquisite, attentive detail, by crafting writing that is accurate, but also creative in its ability to communicate a larger metaphor about life in the form of the story as a whole. If you do decide in favor of sentence-level simile and metaphor, challenge yourself to go beyond the typical “this-is-like-that” construction and create ones that expand your meaning.