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 Kira McFadden[jbox]Melissa Storm 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?[/jbox]
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.
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 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 at http://inrugia.zxq.net.