Ask the Editor: How often should similes and metaphors be used in fiction? Is it possible to rely on them too much?

This is a column by Novel Publicity’s Editorial Lead, Kira McFadden

Emlyn Chand asks: Okay, so according to my editor, I’m addicted to metaphors, similes, and analogies. How much is too much, and what can authors prone to simile do to redirect this problem? Is it a true problem—would it jar readers—or is it just a matter of stylistic preference?

Kira answers: Similes and metaphors are a bit tricky, because many authors use them for style. When it comes down to it, an author’s job is to describe setting, characters, and action, not refer to it as something else. In cases where it would be stylistically appropriate (such as for a joke, to expand your authorial voice, or to give a character some voice), similes and metaphors are fine.

In some ways, working with similes and metaphors is similar to –ly adverbs. Having a few is okay, but most of the time, the writer will strengthen his or her work by describing the scene rather than relying on a simile or metaphor to do the work.

For example:

She raced like a dog. Being a dog meant she had to run, and fast.

That can be strengthened as:

No one could catch her. Her legs pounded the pavement, arms swung at her sides, every huffing breath burned. Faster, faster, she ran, trying to escape her pursuers.

Note how different the voice is and how much is exposed by removing a simile and replacing it with sentences that describe her motions and feelings. Now, say you’re trying to describe a setting, but can’t find any way to write it out without having a metaphor or simile.

The new world had balloons for clouds. Up, they rose, higher and higher until they touched the face of God.

Here, the clouds are likened to balloons, but are they actually balloons? If they are, this would be okay, because the metaphor is descriptive and shows exactly what is there. If the writer means that the clouds float like balloons, there are better ways to show it.

Clouds floated gaily on the currents of air, shifting all around us as we gazed upon the new world. I watched them float higher and higher, until they touched the face of God.

The sentences feel different and sound different, but that does not mean the first one is incorrect. Using similes and metaphors is about limiting yourself. Reread your work. Highlight any similes and metaphors you come across and see how often you use them. Then ask yourself:  “Does my character speak in them because they have no other reference point? Does it strengthen my writing, or detract from it?”

If you’re an author prone to using them a lot, I recommend writing the first draft as you normally would—similes and all. Then, take out your favorite pen, mark up the draft, and think about how to rearrange the sentences. Over time, you should develop a knack for writing without using similes and metaphors too often. If they are used a lot, they can be very jarring, because they remove the reader from the setting, or can cause the reader to lose interest because the world has not been artfully developed.

 

Kira McFadden is the Editorial Head for Novel Publicity and an avid enthusiast for all things publishing and writing. She has worked for two publishing firms and has helped local authors compile information for their works. You can visit her Webpage at http://inrugia.zxq.net.

Do you have a question? We encourage you to submit your questions about editing using the form below. You can also access the query form at novelpublicity.com/editing/questions. Every week, one question will be selected and answered in depth by our Editorial Lead, Kira McFadden. The answers will be revealed in Novel Publicity’s Thursday blog, so stay tuned!

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3 Comments

  1. Would I be correct in assuming what you say about metaphors largely applies to genre fiction rather than literary fiction and also it certainly applies to dialogue, but not necessarily to 3rd person narration, and of thought?

    All fiction is a metaphor in itself, in that it’s telling a story that is, well, fiction. Explaining something that never actually happened, so it seems perfectly legitimate to employ metaphor to try and convey things in terms of something else, but similar. Literary fiction tends to be less plot/action driven and more about language, style, voice and inner thought. Again I would venture that these all lend themselves to metaphor.

  2. Dear Marc,

    Yes and no. Literary Fiction uses metaphors and similes to a greater extent at times, but overuse in any genre can lead to disaster–the reader feels bogged down and don’t receive new, inventive information (such as in descriptions of rooms, people, etc.). Using metaphors and similes in Literary Fiction is a bit different, I agree with you there. They can be used to foreshadow, to reveal events without revealing the actual event, and to give a character, place, or thing depth it would not otherwise have. I agree they should not be used in dialogue as much, but that is not to say you can’t have a character who *only* speaks in similes or metaphors.

    I agree with your statement that literature is a metaphor, because it relays events that never actually happened. I am not advocating for the disuse of metaphors or similes, just noting how they can be overused. It is part of the responsibility of the author and the editor to work together to find a good balance for these devices in any one story. In a way, you are discussing metaphor by turning the novel itself into a metaphor; that works just fine. As you said, all works of fiction are metaphors. Don’t confuse that with writing an entire paragraph using only similes and metaphors:

    “She was like the sun, radiant and gorgeous. He was the moon, sulking behind the Earth, only taking small peeks at her from afar. If they were the sun and moon, were the people around them stars? No, he decided as he watched their slow, cow-like movements. They were more akin to animals grazing on the lowly earth.”

    It feels a little off, and no real information is gleaned from the narration, just that he thinks this woman is like the sun, he is like the moon, and people are like cows. The characters have no depth. What about this woman makes her beautiful? What about this man drives him to hide from her? What does he look like? How are the people like cows?

    On the other hand, there are many cases where similes and metaphors are used brilliantly. They add to a scene rather than detract from it. These devices, like many others in literature, are the spices you need to add to the mix of your novel. Sometimes, you get just the right amount. Other times, the work becomes saturated.

    I would love to see some of your examples and continue this discussion. Please feel free to either e-mail me, or continue to post here.

    Sincerely,
    Kira

  3. Thanks for that kira, if you follow this link to one of my flash fiction pieces, you’ll find a story without any characters at all, but plenty of metaphor! Love to know what you think of it. Bests. Marc

    http://sulcicollective.blogspot.com/2010/05/forsaken-friday-flash.html