Welcome back to my third installment of the revision series where I share tips and tricks I learned during my time in #PitchWars! Last week, we talked about filler and filter words, so if you need a refresher, be sure to check it out. Today, we’re going to cover similes and metaphors in writing. Mainly, when to use them, when to avoid them, purple prose, and all that jazz! So, let’s get started.
Sharing your words
I love me a good metaphor. I’ve always been drawn to beautiful, lyrical language. And as an active writer on social media, especially Twitter, there is no shortage of spectacular language. I’m talking #MuseMon, #2BitTues, #1LineWed… The hashtags go on. These are fun events among writers that aren’t directly related to pitching your books to agents or editors. Instead, you all group together on the hashtag and share YOUR OWN WORDS from your own work and revel in the awesomeness that is this community.
Which is fantastic. It really is. I gobble that ish right up. Mainly because events like these truly bring out the beautiful lines. We all have those moments. The ones where we write down something of pure amazing and you sit and stare at your blinking cursor because holy shit did I just write that. Right? Right. And all of those amazing, beautiful lines tend to pop up under those hashtags, because why not? There are a few people I religiously follow on Twitter just to read their carefully crafted sentences. Perfect little teasers into their writing style.
And more often than not, these tidbits are similes or metaphors. It makes sense. You have a mere 140 characters to create an impact that sticks. Using language that promotes strong sensory reactions is the way to go.
But here’s the kicker (at least for me) — these spectacular one-liners are my gateway drug to purple prose.
For those of you who have never heard of the term “purple prose” here’s a quick rundown:
Overdone, ornate prose that is so over-the-top it distracts the reader from what’s actually happening
Pretty straightforward, right? Basically, velvet red roses pretty much covers red roses. We don’t need a whole damn page or fifteen about the exact texture, shade, other-worldly meaning, or whatever you’re aiming at, because you know what? It’s a flower. If it takes you a page to describe anything, you’re likely on the verge of going purple.
Now, like all writers, I deal with a nasty little bugger called imposter syndrome. You know, that thing where you think your writing isn’t good enough or it can’t even stand on its own next to your comrades. Enter the aforementioned hashtags with gut-wrenching feelings and beautiful language. For me, it’s a one-way ticket to self-doubt land, and you better watch out current MS, because I’m coming at you hot with sentences you don’t even need.
Basically, I have to refrain from immediately running to my work and going, “Ooooohhhh, this lavender flower really should be …” It’s a damn flower. This is the problem with similes and metaphors in writing. We have the tendency to throw them in everywhere.
I couldn’t help myself. Who doesn’t love tacos?! Anyway, you get the gist. In general, you want to avoid using similes and metaphors in your writing when you feel like you’re going too in-depth on something that doesn’t add to the overall point of the paragraph/chapter/arc/story/etc., or when it makes absolutely no sense for your character to be thinking in similes or metaphors.
Let’s use an example from my own writing, shall we?
“He stilled before me like a deer.”
Alone, not a huge deal. We all know how deer freeze in place, sometimes even when faced with danger (like oncoming cars). Here’s the problem — in this particular scene, my MC has been taken hostage. She’s chained up and fighting for her life to get out and rescue those dear to her.
WHY ON EARTH WOULD SHE LOOK AT HER CAPTOR LIKE A DEER. WHY.
Aggressive caps is aggressive. Needless to say, that got changed real quick. Little things like that make a world of difference to your readers. If I’m totally engrossed in the scene you’ve built, if the tension is running high and my heart is pounding, and I stumble across an ill-placed simile or metaphor, it totally kills the vibe. Don’t do it. I don’t care how many one-liners you see on Twitter. For the love of writing, keep deer out of prison cells.
When to use similes and metaphors in writing
So now that you’re aware of the potential for things to go haywire, you can move forward and use similes and metaphors in writing as you deem fit. I’m not here to tell you how much is too much — you’re in charge of your work. You decide. But as a general rule of thumb, use them (sparingly) to evoke strong sensory reactions in applicable settings. Let’s take a look at one of the early paragraphs in the first 250 words of my MS.
“She was young with pointed ears and thick black hair. Her red heels clicked against the pavement like ice cracking over a thawing lake. Business casual. Pencil skirt with a slit up the back. Wide-set hips. She’d do just fine.”
When I read this, I can hear the ice cracking. That sound stays with me, as well as the building tension my MC is experiencing. It paints a picture of the type of woman my MC is watching — someone with a purpose. Someone she desires.
While I can’t give you an exact “if this, then this” scenario for when to use similes and metaphors in writing, just try to use your best judgement. When you’re editing, ask yourself, “Does this analogy add to the story? Does it add to my character? Does it illuminate something the audience needs to know? Is it a continuous train of thought spanning from page one to page thirty?”
You catch my drift.
So in conclusion, use similes and metaphors in writing sparingly and when appropriate. I know it can be real tempting to read those tweets and rush back to your MS, but don’t flood your words just because you feel like everyone else around you is killin’ it. I’ll let you in on a little secret — they’re posting their best lines. Their favorite lines. Their entire manuscript isn’t one simile after another.