Mastering Figurative Language: A Guide to Metaphors, Similes, and Analogies

Writing is like cooking a meal; you need a balance of raw ingredients and spices to make it delicious. The proper cooking temperature and time is the editing process. Julienning the vegetables is the crafting of sentences. The recipe is your outline. It all comes together to create a perfect medley of taste in your mouth. 

I’m getting away from myself here with this analogy. The point is that you can use figurative language, words or phrases that have meaning while not being literally true, to elevate your writing. Figurative language includes idioms, hyperbole, and personification as well as figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, and analogies. These three terms all equate two unrelated things for emphasis, but they differ slightly in execution and effect. They also all help with showing, not telling, a topic we covered previously. 

In this blog, we’ll cover what metaphors, similes, and analogies are, how and why to use them, and examples of when they work—and when they don’t. Learning how to employ figurative language is one of the most fruitful and important ways you can begin to master writing, so use this blog as a helpful starting point!

When to Use Figurative Language 

Figurative language helps make stories more interesting. While literal language has its place, such as in legal documents, professional communication, and academic papers, figurative language is essential to creative writing. It also helps bring clarity to complex or abstract ideas by comparing them to simpler or more relatable things. 

Figurative language, and the figures of speech mentioned above, are especially good for writing descriptions. When describing a person, place, or thing, you can give readers a good idea of what it looks, feels, smells, and is like in general by comparing it to something else. 

For example, in Frank Herbert’s iconic space opera Dune, he describes an Arrakeen cavern for the first time: “…silent people all around him moving in the dim light of glow-globes. It was solemn there and like a cathedral as he listened to a faint sound—the drip-drip-drip of water.” This moment takes place on the fifth page of the book and readers have no idea what an Arrakeen cavern is. By comparing it to something familiar but not out of place in the world Herbert has created, readers are able to instantly envision what it might look and feel like, giving them something solid to cling to as they begin to walk further into this world. 

Understanding Metaphors

A metaphor is when the storyteller makes an exact comparison between two unrelated things. For example: “Her hands are magic.” Unlike similes, which we cover in the next section, metaphors do not call to attention the comparison they make. Thus, when used in a story, metaphors often blend in with the rest of the description and the reader may not even realize that the author has made this comparison. 

Metaphors have two parts: 

  1. A tenor, which is the object or concept being described. 
  2. A vehicle, which is what the object or concept is compared to. 

In our earlier example, the hands are the tenor and the magic is the vehicle.

Ex: Her hands are magic. 

Metaphors help readers better understand unfamiliar concepts or objects and paint familiar things in a new light. How easily readers can decipher a metaphor depends on the strength of the comparison. A strong metaphor will be surprising but accessible; it says something new without confusing the reader. A weak metaphor is usually a cliché like, “He bit the bullet,” or, “Life is a journey.” You want to avoid clichés as much as possible in your writing as they feel derivative, unimaginative, and unoriginal. 

Types of Metaphors

There are six kinds of metaphors that can be used throughout writing. Here’s a breakdown of each one: 

  1. Conventional Metaphor 

This kind of metaphor goes unnoticed in everyday speech because the concept of it is so common and accepted in our collective consciousness. This does not necessarily mean that it is a cliché, although it can be one. 

An example of a conventional metaphor would be saying something like, “I’m a night owl but she’s an early bird.” Most English-speaking Americans will instantly recognize this as meaning that the speaker of the sentence tends to stay up late whereas the “she” they refer to rises early. On the other hand, someone unfamiliar with English or this phrase may wonder why you’re comparing people to birds.

  1. Creative Metaphor 

Instantly recognizable as unique and original, creative metaphors are meant to be provocative and striking. Poetry very often makes use of creative metaphor. 

Hold fast to dreams
for when dreams go
life is a barren field 
frozen with snow. 

In this excerpt from his poem “Dreams,” Langston Hughes compares life to a “barren field frozen with snow.” From this, the reader can infer Hughes’s meaning that when someone no longer has dreams, their life becomes desolate and cold like a barren field. In this way, creative metaphors should always seek to shed light on complex ideas.

  1. Implied Metaphor 

Implied metaphors make a comparison without explicitly naming the vehicle part of the metaphor. For example, “She’s got her claws in him,” is a phrase understood to express that someone (in this case, “she”) has a strong emotional or manipulative hold over another person (in this case, “him”). But the comparison of “she” to an animal with claws is implied rather than stated directly, since most people understand this without clarification. If we were to add a vehicle, the metaphor may read more like: “She’s an animal with her claws in him.” 

  1. Extended Metaphor 

An extended metaphor, or conceit, is a comparison that is repeated several times throughout a work, usually in new ways. It can extend several lines or sentences or, in the case of many songs and pieces of literature, throughout the entire work. Extended metaphors can also be allegories, wherein the story uses symbols and figurative language to convey a hidden meaning that is typically moral or political. 

“Hope Is the Thing With Feathers” by Emily Dickenson provides us with an extended metaphor:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul, 
And sings the tune—without the words, 
And never stops at all, 

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm 
That could abash the little bird 
That kept so many warm. 

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land, 
And on the strangest sea; 
Yet, never, in extremity, 
It asked a crumb of me. 

Here we see how Dickenson compares hope to a bird, personifying it and extending the metaphor throughout the poem not only by referencing hope directly but also through words like “perches” and “little bird.” 

Other examples of extended metaphors appear throughout all kinds of storytelling, but here are a few that stand out: 

  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech compares the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the status of African Americans since then to cashing a bad check. 
  • Animal Farm by George Orwall is an allegory that uses farm animals revolting against the humans who run the farm to provide a lesson on authoritarianism, oppression, and tyranny. 
  • In Grief Is the Bird by Samantha Jean Coxall, we have a metaphor right from the start: Grief is the bird. The story takes this metaphor to heart and reflects on how a child feels after their father has passed. Read it here.
  • “She’ll forgive the grudges she’s borne like Sisyphean boulders,” is a line from the flash fiction piece The Forgiveness Machine by Joy Baglio. This piece uses a machine that can grant forgiveness as a vehicle to study the emotional turmoil of life. 
  1. Catachresis

Also known as a mixed metaphor, catachresis blends two well-known metaphors or aphorisms in a way that doesn’t make sense. The effect can be to show that a character is confused, frazzled, or perhaps not very bright. 

An example of this would be: 

  • “People in glass houses should not wear their hearts on their sleeves.” 

Let’s break down why this is a mixed metaphor and doesn’t make sense. The real sayings are: 

  • “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
  • “Wear your heart on your sleeve.” 

The first means that people with faults should not criticize others for having the same faults. The second means to make your feelings known rather than hiding them. Thus, the inferred meaning of the original mixed metaphor is that people with faults should not hide their feelings. The comparison doesn’t work because the two known phrases lose all meaning—or at least come together in a very confused one. 

Mixed metaphors can sometimes appear accidentally in writing, so make sure that when you’re making comparisons, unless done purposefully for characterization, the metaphor’s meaning is clear.

  1. Abstract Metaphor 

Finally, we have abstract metaphors, wherein the tenor and vehicle cannot be separated cleanly because the concept being expressed is too large or complex to distill into two distinctly related parts. A popular example of this would be equating light to knowledge or truth, such as when something “brings light to a situation.” By saying that, there is an accepted understanding that light is synonymous with knowledge or truth which, unless learned, is not explicitly obvious. However, the concept of light equalling knowledge or truth is imbued into our general consciousness and so a metaphor implying this can be understood without further clarification.

Exploring Similes

A simile uses “like” or “as” to show that what would be considered the tenor and vehicle in a metaphor are similar but not exactly the same. An example would be: 

  • Simile: She’s like a magician. 
  • Metaphor: She is a magician.

In this example, a simile would likely be the better option as it’s possible for someone to be a magician without it being a metaphor. In the simile version, it’s obvious that the speaker is not saying that person is actually a magician, but is doing something that makes her like one. 

When To Use Simile vs. Metaphor

Similes compare two similar things using “like” or “as,” whereas metaphors make the assertion that two different things are one and the same, as opposed to being like it. Therefore, metaphors are more direct. When you want a description to feel stronger or more forceful, use a metaphor. Metaphors don’t leave wiggle room. Something is something else even though it’s not. Similes, on the other hand, make it much more obvious that there is a comparison taking place. When you want someone to compare two things but not equate them, use a simile. 

Other Examples of Similes 

Similes appear in many places, and they can also be clichés. When writing similes, lean into creativity and specificity. 

  • Cliché: Her tears fell like rain. 
  • Original: A single tear skittered down her cheek like a droplet of rain on a car window. 
  • Cliché: They were as different as night and day. 
  • Original: They were as different as whiskey and wine; both alcoholic, but one went down easier.

Practice some on your own! Look up some cliché similes and metaphors and try your hand at coming up with more creative versions. In your own writing, remember that any metaphors or similes you use should also make sense in the context of the story. For example, if your story takes place in a bakery, using figures of speech related to baking, sweets, or cooking might make a lot of sense thematically.

Unraveling Analogies

An analogy extends a comparison by adding context, often by using a third element that two things share. For example: 

  • Metaphor: Her hands are magic. 
  • Simile: She’s like a magician. 
  • Analogy: She’s as crafty as a magician, always pulling solutions out of thin air. 

To construct an analogy, think about what makes two things similar and ask yourself why you’re comparing them to begin with. If you can’t come up with anything, it might not be a sound analogy and you should think of something else. Let’s examine a few examples of analogies from literature to better understand how to construct them: 

  1. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare: In this analogy, Juliet compares Romeo to a rose by acknowledging that his name—and thus the feud between their families—really means nothing because he would be just as sweet, and she would like him just as much, were he called any other name. Romeo is the tenor, the rose is the vehicle, and the comparison between the two is the sweetness. 
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. 
By any other word would smell as sweet. 
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called” 
  1. “Migration Season” by Kelli Russell Agodon: In this poem, Agodon compares the families of patients to “snow geese in a flooded field.” She extends the metaphor made in the first three lines of the poem throughout it, providing the reader with an understanding of what it feels like to live that experience. 
    Read it here!
  1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius: This series of personal musings from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius has a lot of wisdom to share—which is one reason why we included it in our Literary Tarot deck! But the line below in particular provides us with an analogy that compares time to a river. Is it perhaps where we get the idea of a “time stream” from? 
“Time is like a river made up of events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.”
  1. Macbeth by William Shakespeare: In Act V of this iconic tragedy, Macbeth recognizes and mourns the death of his wife, comparing life to a “walking shadow,” implying the meaning that it has no real purpose. Not only is the speech a perfect example of an analogy, but it also goes HARD. 
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 
Signifying nothing.”
  1. “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost: This poem is both an extended metaphor and an analogy, using spring’s ending to reflect on how fleeting life is. It’s also famously used in S.E. Hinton’s book The Outsiders, which has a storyline that seeks to exemplify the poem and its meaning. 
“Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

4 Tips for the Effective Usage of Figurative Language

  1. Balance figurative language with literal descriptions. While using figurative language will imbue your narrative with beauty and depth, too much of it may result in confusion and clunkiness. The various metaphors, analogies, and similes will run into each other and confuse one another. Make sure every figure of speech is grounded in something literal that the reader can actually envision. 
  2. Avoid clichés and overused comparisons. Seek to make your metaphors, similes, and analogies feel unique rather than overdone. Some popular metaphors that have been overused and are now considered clichés include:
    1. Bite the bullet. 
    2. Turn a blind eye. 
    3. Give the cold shoulder. 
    4. Comparing tears and rain. 
    5. Comparing life to a journey. 
    6. Laughter is the best medicine. 

There are many more, but in general, if you feel you’ve heard it many times before, avoid it. 

  1. Experiment with figurative language to enhance your writing. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box. (A cliché). Let me try that again: Don’t be afraid to melt a box of crayons together and write with a whole new color. Better? This is harder than it looks… 
  2. That’s why the most important step is to: Practice, practice, practice. Like with the other techniques we’ve covered in our Facts of Fiction series, the only way to get better at using figurative language is to practice doing it. 

Exercise: Practical Application of Figurative Language

Now that you know what metaphors, similes, and analogies are, let’s put them to use! Write a passage describing an activity you know well and do often. For example, maybe you’re a runner. What does it feel like to run? Describe the activity from start to finish, purposefully using as many metaphors, similes, and analogies as you can. While the final piece may feel overwrought with figurative language, it’s a good way to get the creative juices flowing and see what original comparisons you can come up with.

Cast the Spell of Figurative Language

Sprinkle your writing with a little magic with figurative language. When used correctly, figures of speech and other forms of figurative language add depth to descriptions, help readers better visualize scenes, evoke emotions, add symbolism and layers, and make a story feel more memorable and impactful. 

Keep tackling these monthly exercises with us as we continue our journey of becoming better writers! Follow @frictionseries on Instagram to be the first to know when we release new installations in this series. Plus, discover incredible stories in the Unseen issue of F(r)ictionavailable for purchase now!

Maribel Leddy

Maribel Leddy is a passionate writer, editor, and creative content strategist based in New York, New York. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a B.A. in Writing Seminars and has been with Brink since 2018. With experience in writing professionally for over five years now, Maribel enjoys crafting engaging, thoughtful, and well-researched content across a variety of topics and industries. For fiction writing, her favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy. She currently lives with her sister and their two cats, Cleo and Chai.

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