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Simile vs. Metaphor: Smackdown!

Categories: Advice, How to Improve Writing Skills, How to Write Poetry, Writing Poetry, Poetry Craft Tips, Revision Tips Tags: Revision Tips.

The title to this post makes it sound like I’m going to have similes breaking chairs across metaphors’ backs. Maybe metaphors will pin similes. As if.

Similes and metaphors both have their uses in poetry. I don’t want to say that one is always better than the other, because they are both devices of communication that serve poets (and other writers) well. Just in case you don’t know the difference, here’s what they mean:

metaphor: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase takes on the meaning of another word or phrase to suggest a likeness between the two.

Here’s a metaphor in action: My heart is a train pounding down the tracks.

simile: a figure of speech comparing two unlike things as if they are alike, usually while using the words like or as.

Here’s a simile in action: My heart is like a train pounding down the tracks.

Here’s another simile: My heart pounds as if it were a train on the tracks.

*****

In poetry, I generally prefer metaphors unless I have a good reason to use a simile. Here are a few reasons why I prefer metaphors:

  • Economy of language. Removing the word like (or as) equals one less word that detracts from the meaning of the poem.
  • Stronger language. My heart is a train is a stronger statement than my heart is like a train.
  • More authoritative. Metaphors are what they are. Similes are kind of like what they are. There’s room for the reader to question, how is my heart like a train? Unless that’s the purpose of the poem, it distracts the reader for no good reason. Unintentional distractions weaken poems.

Similes also beg to have more follow up. That is, poets usually feel the need to follow up a line like My heart is like a train pounding down the tracks with another few lines that explain why the poet feels this way. Poets who use the metaphor have the description option available to them, but they’re more than likely rushing on to their next point in the poem (like trains pounding down the tracks–sorry I had to throw that in there).

So why use similes at all?
Similes are very useful in communication. Not every this is a that. Sometimes a this needs to be like a that, whether we’re talking hearts and trains or mouths and moons.

Another reason: Similes can help a poet hit a certain syllable count. It’s not the best reason to use a simile instead of a metaphor, but there you go.

Bring out the prompts!
I thought it might be fun to break out some writing prompts, in which you can come up with your own inventive metaphors and/or similes. I’ll supply the first half of the statement; you can do the second half. I encourage you to incorporate any new or unusual metaphors or similes into your poems.

Her smile is…

The hospital…

Just before evening, the sun…

My mouth is…

Bats are…

*****

Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer

*****

Learn more writing tips and tricks with The Little Red Writing Book, by Brandon Royal.
 

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About Robert Lee Brewer

Senior Content Editor, Writer's Digest Community.

37 Responses to Simile vs. Metaphor: Smackdown!

  1. LadyBspittin'datpoetry says:

    Trying to open my writing up to something new. I am naturally a slam poet, but I want to be more. Here are my first steps lol:

    Her smile is package of “feel better”
    With 32 tools to fix my day, swaddled in laughter.

    The hospital
    a needle extracting green from your pocket,
    peace from your soul
    and health from your whole

    Just before evening, the sun is an orange curtsey to the pale iris of God

    My mouth is a pit-bull violently sniffing out truth
    Latched on to the throat of lies

    Bats are terror taking flight…

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  3. Juanita Lewison-Snyder says:

    Simile vs. Metaphor

    ****

    Her smile, a wide clematis edged in serrated jumanji pink, lurks in the soft fold of lips.

    Her smile is wide like a clematis, with edges serrated in jumanji pink, as if the thin accompanying lips could somehow soften its bite.

    ****

    The hospital, a roman colluseum of slaves and gladiators, fights for survival among street beaurocrats.

    Like a roman colluseum of slaves and gladiators, the hospital suits up for battle among the street beaurocrats of the day.

    ****

    Just before evening, the sun sheds its red and yellow robes, and sinks into the jacuzzi that is the Pacific.

    Just before evening, the sun will shed its red and yellow robes, then slip naked as a beluga into the jacuzzi that is the Pacific.

    ****

    My mouth is a vinaigrette, eager to cleanse and sting.

    My mouth is like an aged cask whose fruits have turned acidic.

    ****

    He reminded her of a little brown bat, leathery and beady.

    With his suede pulled taunt around him like a little brown bat, leathery and beady.

    ****

  4. The hospital was a hell in white,
    The demons dressed in white jackets
    And walked down white hallways
    To me in a white gown
    Trembling like frightened child.

  5. Dare Gaither says:

    Pkp…Thank you for reading my poem. I was struck by your "white swooping fangs" …. an image that’s hard to forget!…
    and the "again" at the end made me want to look at the sky and sigh.

  6. Colette D says:

    Margaret ~ Your welcome, thank YOU, and also congratulations on your top-ten placement!!!

    Patricia, if this were a contest, your fun-house mirror would take the cake!!! Great one!

    Metaphorically speaking, her smile is, like, a simile.

  7. Willy says:

    SIMILES & METAPHORS

    Her smile is a white, ceramic-
    tiled wall, first thing in the morning.

    Her smile’s like a nag’s when
    she grabs for a carrot.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    The hospital on the hill was
    the crow’s nest of San Francisco.

    The hospital was like a magnet,
    drawing vagrants to its iron doors.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Just before evening, the sun rheostats itself,
    slowly dimming, eventually into the night.

    Just before evening, the sun seems to hover,
    like the Good Witch’s globe, over the yellow brick
    road, and then it floats off to meet the horizon.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    My mouth is a cave
    Halloween black. A bat hangs
    from damp mid-ceiling.

    My mouth is in pain, like a cat’s
    tail in a room full of rocking chairs.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Bats are Nature’s contradiction of birds.

    Bats are like fuzzy, flying,
    screaming strips of suede.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    W

  8. Pkp says:

    Denise & Dare … Just spent some time reading through …noticed your cactus Denise and your "arbiter" Dare were both in my poem which I tossed off late last night…..both of your images must have unintentionally stuck when skimming…. Apologies….

  9. Walt Wojtanik says:

    Her smile is the melody that plays as the soundtrack in my mind.

    The hospital crouched silently on the dimly lit street; a carnivore waiting to devour the next life that entered.

    Just before evening, the sun sat on the horizon; a beacon to lure the worn heart safely to love’s harbor.

    My mouth is the place my words go to complete my thoughts, sometimes coherently.

    Bats are blindly fluttering, lost in their airborne merengue.

  10. Nancy Posey says:

    Her smile is pulled as tight as an Applachian apple doll

    The hospital corridors were marinaded in ammonia, morphine, and fear

    Just before evening, the sun slipped behind the folded screen of clouds, peaking out once more before easing into a dreamless sleep.

    My mouth is clenched tight as a rusted lock on a long-abandoned cemetery gate.

    Bats are hanging out in their black leather, squinting at a passersby as if contemplating a tussle with her bouffant hair.

  11. Pkp says:

    Her smile is a still covered country bridge up ahead as the sky darkens and the first fat drops hit the windshield.

    On the long silent drive to the hospital disinfectant cold tiled dull gleamed grand arbiter of life

    It is that time just before evening, the sun one of those wild boys that passes through from time to time making promises that disappear in the dark

    My mouth is dry, an unwatered cactus those two teeth on the side poking my cheek needles that might just need to be pulled.

    Bats are flying white swooping fangs in the gathering gloom as her hand still on swollen belly mine tapping silently on the steering wheel we wait out the storm… again

    Advice | Poetry Craft Tips | Revision Tips

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 5:01:16 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)    Comments [24] 

  12. Sara McNulty says:

    Her smile is a strong sun rising

    The hospital smells like canned peas and piss

    Just before evening, the sun is a changing canvas of colors

    My mouth is crammed with unspoken thoughts

    Bats are flying nightmares

  13. Pkp says:

    Ah Dare…. Appropriate….? No question your entire poem a collective sensory passionate metaphor…Beautiful …." transportive". I am there….. The metaphor the exquisite imagery of "the hospital" and all it means universally and personally….

  14. Dare Gaither says:

    The hospital metaphors overwhelmed
    me with memories. I hope this is not
    inappropriate for the prompt.

    Gateway

    Days pass into an endless blur.
    I stare numbly out the window
    at the parking lot below.

    A silver jaguar deposits a lady of a certain age
    gently carrying a high-end shopping bag.
    She hesitates as three young children
    tumble past her, their mother firmly grasping
    the small red hand of a restrained sibling.

    A tall man slams the door of his pickup.
    He hitches up his jeans, and reaches through the
    open window to retrieve a box of candy
    and a gaily bouncing balloon.

    Two young women gesture fiercely
    as they walk across the parking lot.
    One carries a bouquet and the other
    swings a small suitcase as they both
    look back at a man dawdling behind them.
    A sharp word prods him to keep up
    as they approach the entranceway.

    Night falls and darkness mutes the
    unceasing rhythm of activity.
    Lights flash as the helicopter
    disappears into the distance
    heading toward an unknown tragedy.

    Sometime in the sleepless grey hours I hear
    a frantic call from a nurse in the next room.
    Over the loudspeaker Code Blue shatters
    the subdued hum of monitors and whispered words.
    I feel the rumble of the crash cart
    as swift feet lead the way and then
    silence.

    As dawn breaks, the nurse quietly enters
    making her final check before shift change.
    I catch her eye as she takes my mother’s blood pressure.
    “Sounded like a rough night.”
    She nods silently.
    “Is she….here?” I ask, pointing to the next room.
    The nurse shakes her head and turns away.
    I look at my mother, sedated and at peace for now.
    Tears flow freely in the face of unyielding truth.
    So it will be.
    Soon.

    The hospital stands,
    grand arbiter of fate,
    unmoved by circumstance or will.
    All enter through her doors
    filled with desperate hope.
    Each leaves alone
    bearing private grief or grace.

    She guards within her walls
    Our Sacred transitions
    Life and Death.
    For a moment
    Enfolded in the mystery
    Perhaps we touch
    Eternity

  15. Dare Gaither says:

    Her smile is a drop of honey glistening atop a hot buttered biscuit.

    My mouth is the fickle mediator between thought and word.

    The hospital stands,
    grand arbiter of fate,
    unmoved by circumstance or will.

  16. My attempt:

    My mouth is a dried blistering cotton boll in the hot August Alabama sun
    waiting for rain to quinch its thrist when the day is done.

  17. Linda Voit says:

    Her smile is an empty cave.

    The hospital, death wearing antiseptic cologne.

    Just before evening, the sun is spilled orange juice.

    My mouth is a swinging hammer.

    Bats are nightmares with wings.

  18. Colette ;D says:

    Tiel and Nancy ~ Thanks for your additional references. Now I’m convinced I have metaphored all wrong!
    Sheila ~ I’m convinced you’ve smacked metaphor on the nose!
    Amy ~ hee hee! I’m guano read that one to my boys. I’m sure the laughter will pelt me like big bat bombs!

    And now for my ill attempt:

    ~ Potty Mouth ~

    My mouth is a pair of underwear
    and it’s too big for my britches,
    but too small to cover my derrière,
    and not funny enough for stitches.

    Yes, my mouth is a pair of dungarees
    so I’m careful where I sit –
    I also have foot-in-mouth disease,
    so my "tongue" is full of it!

  19. Poetry forms
    Her smile is a sun on cold winter day.
    While the hospital is like a band-aid on a open wound with smiles of grace.
    Grace is a person who miraculous survives venomous bite from vampire bat that are supernatural creatures of the night.
    Just before evening, the sun is a beacon like the moon on the night sky.
    My mouth is a cactus in the desert on the hottest day.

    P.S This will need revise later when I can think a new similes and metaphors for this prompt.
    Denise Swoveland

  20. Pearl, loved your "batty" images.

  21. Metaphor Immortal 9-18-2010

    Her smile is Mona Lisa with teeth
    not a grin but enigma
    as she lowers eyes
    then casts them again on him
    as a reel
    and the spell is complete.

  22. Marian Veverka says:

    Her smile is something she isn’t used to wearing.

    The hospital is a hive of busy bees who would probably sting you if you bothered them with a question,

    Just befor evening, the sun, like a student who has played hooky all day poked through the clouds with a promise to put on a really great show tomorrow.

    My mouth is running on empty again Sorry

    Bats are tossed in disgust as the team looses another close one.

  23. Oh Shelia.. thank you and wow to …."her smile is a half empty cemetery of toppled ,yellowed tombstones" so much fun!

  24. sheila harris says:

    her smile is a half empty cemetery of toppled ,yellowed tombstones

    her smile is less genuine than a pair of gucci pumps purchased from a trench coated vendor on 4th street

    her smile is my early thaw on the coldest February morning

    just before evening the sun decided to ditch the much heralded floor show and cover up with gray clouds

    just before evening the sun exploded into a shameless fanfare of glorious neon crayola color

    my mouth is wondering where yours is

  25. sheila harris says:

    Pearl! a stellar collection..!
    "the only place where you are not seen coming but absolutely seen going"lol..

  26. Robert …. just love this prompt…
    Here are a few off the top of my head.. thought I’d write 5 metaphors and 5 similies for each but have to leave for a bit.. back later for more
    Great fun! :)

    Her smile is…
    a graduated strand of colored matched pearls.

    wide as a bovine’s behind but not furry at all even first thing in the morning.

    every sparkled light in every city you’ve ever seen on a really dark night.

    a white rabbit appearing out of a hat – surprising and disappearing.

    four toothed – two on top – two on bottom – imperfectly matched – in all that pink gum.

    like the proverbial cat who ate the proverbial canary only without yellow feathers

    like every toothpaste commercial you’ve ever seen only brighter.

    like her mothers

    like a crescent moon beneath star-lit eyes

    as absent as a truant on the last day of school.

    **************

    The hospital…

    hive to the captured bees waiting for sweet release.

    last stop on the railroad where the journey was the destination.

    first stop as eyes focus on a very big light after a very dark place.

    voracious swallower of all things antiseptic, crisp, cold and stark

    the only place where you are not seen coming but absolutely seen going.

    like a moon-lit mooring to a lost boat on a choppy night.

    like Death’s spectral grin opening to swallow the vulnerable.

    like that place on a burning hot night where a guy stops for a cold one even though he doesn’t drink just because it has a/c.

    like all the promises any teenage boy ever made to any teenage girl when he was pounding all over.

    like air-freshener in a cheery container – in a summer outhouse – three hours after dinner of beans right out of the can.

    *************************

    Just before evening, the sun…

    is a good-time fellow jingling change in his pocket for a whole day’s worth of tunes.

    Rumplestiltskin ordering gold spun from hay

    that girl who smiles and looks into your eyes and has you believing she’ll stay forever even as she glances over her shoulder

    sleeping lion breathing deep and heavy limbed.

    the Time Square ball dropping in glittered crystal bringing on a new night instead of a New Year

    *************************************

    Bats are…

    belfry’d clichés circling an upside world.

    velvet coated fangs in flight looking for hair.

    holders of homeruns cracked just right on a summer field

    cloak wrapped burning eyed lotharios waited outside the open bedroom window.

    beautiful flyers gracefully swooping just at sunset – arcing across the sky comforting if you think they’re swallows.

  27. ann says:

    Great post! I’m removing "likes" right and left in my manuscript-in-progress. Thanks!

  28. sheila harris says:

    i always get nervous around talk of simile and metaphor…..;(
    thanks for the lesson ..

  29. sheila harris says:

    her smile is bright
    as napalm flame
    incinerating the gloom
    from room to room

    the hospital wavers
    in my mind’s eye
    a fortress of asepsis
    protection from illness
    or a modern day,
    high priced torture chamber
    to morgue one stop shop.

    just before evening the sun dipped
    a molten shoulder and winked
    then teased the bashful sky pink
    with her sultry orange goodnight

  30. A simile is like a mirror, a metaphor is the fun house mirror.

  31. Just before evening, old sun waves goodbye,
    to fluffy clouds wandering cheerfully by.
    It’s time for the daylight to take him to bed,
    and night sky to greet stars and moonlight instead.

  32. Robert, very good point. I’m a language/grammar nut and find similes a bit tiresome. And using them to make a syllable or word count is one reason I tend to rail against forms. Too contrived. You did inspire a short ditty from this message:

    Bats are furry airplanes
    full of guano bombs
    I know they eat mosquitos
    but their ammo falls on moms

    Like me.

  33. Nancy Posey says:

    Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual did a wonderful job discussing when to use one or the other. I recommend it.

  34. I had a blog post on that very subject a few years back: Simile and Metaphor: Greens and Blues. I prefer metaphors myself.

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