The literary world is a jolly place filled with all manner of paths that could lead you to ask questions you never thought would be worth giving the time of day. Nonetheless, writers end up doing just that.
When one becomes a novelist, concepts introduced in a High School literature course that may have once seemed boring to you are now subjects that fascinate you. Be it alliteration, symbolism, rhyme schemes, or personification, for some reason, you don’t find yourself snoring when you hear these anymore. Then, before long, you start wondering on what the most effective ways to incorporate these into your novel are.
Questions like “What is the best way to personify a volcano?”, “How can I repeat the same consonants to give rhythm to this paragraph?”, and “What’s the best way to symbolize this character’s inner struggle?” all become par for the course when you tread into the realm of storytelling. Yet there is one question which we all ask ourselves, yet never bother to answer.
What’s better, similes or metaphors?
This is a war that has been waging since the dawn of literature in the stone tablets of the Sumerians and Vedic Indians, and one that has left many a poet scratching their heads for the last 3000 years or so. Naturally, to answer this philosophical and thought-provoking question, one would need a literary expert. One would need someone whom has journeyed through the thick and thin of countless novels, whom has woven plotlines out of the most peculiar ideas, and one whom has crafted stories so deep that young readers have drowned in the face of the knowledge being imparted upon them.
Or, you could have a snarky 17 year-old give his two cents on it.
Alrighty kids, buckle down, cause this is gonna be a helluva ride. In the most hollow of nutshells, a metaphor and simile are two pieces of figurative language used to draw a comparison between objects, persons, places, ideas, etc. The only real difference is that a simile uses the words “like” or “as” in order to accomplish this goal, whereas the metaphor just plain treats the objects as though they were the same thing. How about an example?
Simile: “Like a cat, Lyra flitted from one shrub to another, her nimble feet trudging over foliage and thorny brambles.”
Metaphor: “Lyra was a cat, her feline form glided through the shrubs in dance, and her paws clawed through foliage and thorny brambles.”
Now, before I offend anyone, I’ll spoil you just a tiny bit. Both of these are effective forms of description, and I’m not saying that just because I wrote them. 😛
Both the Simile and the Metaphor shown here have accomplished the key objective in any piece of description. And that is to convey an image. However , there are pros and cons to both of these.
Let’s start off with the Simile. The Simile is by far the clearest out of these both, and it’s capable of giving an accurate depiction of what the writer intends to get across. We can tell that Lyra is a rather agile girl capable of mild acrobatic feats. And many writers will be perfectly satisfied with this, but it suffers from one drawback.
In my opinion, while the simile is a safer way to go about this piece of description, it doesn’t unlock the full potential of it. It’s just not as gripping when compared to the metaphor, in my humble opinion. Don’t get me wrong, it does a good job at immersing me, just not AS a good job as the metaphor.
Speaking of which, why not move on to the Metaphor?
Now, with the metaphor, you have an increased level of immersion. The kind of image that the metaphor gives you is one that strays the boundary between a concrete and abstract reality. The description is not vague enough for you to be lost on what is occurring, but not concrete enough to anull the reader’s interpretation of what is happening. It gives a reader just enough wiggle room to have an image in their head, while omitting enough details to let them envision it in their own way.
But, this also has its drawbacks. Plenty, in fact.
So let’s get the elephant out of the room, playing with Metaphors is a lot like Sword-Swallowing. If you do it right, you’ll undoubtedly woo your crowd, but it’s insanely easy to mess up. And if you do, you’re going to have a baaaad time.
While the metaphor seems to be the perfect form of description, it’s also the riskiest. Using them too often can lead to them losing their effect, and if they are used without sufficient context, you are bound to confuse the reader. If the example I gave had been the first line of a novel, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of my readers believed Lyra was an actual cat! That’s because that line on its own does not have the necessary details that would suggest that Lyra was a human being.
So here we have the conundrum, which one is the best? Well the answer to this question is as unclear as you want it to be. Like so many things in literature, much of it relies on what kind of writer you are. By nature, some people will be more drawn to the mystery of the metaphor, while others will prefer the crisp realism that can be provided by the simile. But that isn’t even to say you can’t mix them, in fact, that’s what most of us do. No author uses one or the other exclusively, we apply them when we see fit. Which occasions you deem “fit”, however, is entirely up to you.
But we can draw a few certain conclusions. Metaphors are risky, but capable of giving a unique experience to the reader, while similes are safer and are easier when trying to make people understand what you mean.
So what do you prefer? Similes or Metaphors? Which do you use more often? Tell me in the comments below!
As always, this has been the QuestingAuthor. Keep writing, my friends.