#Prowrite: Effective Description – Similes and Metaphors

Last week we looked at the use of nouns, verbs and adjectives in description. This week we’re going to get a little bit more technical by looking at the first of our writer’s craft methods: similes and metaphors.

Both of these are techniques that create meaning by association. Remember, if ‘like’ or ‘as’ are used in the description, it’s a simile. If it’s a direct description, it’s a metaphor.


Similes are a way of describing one thing by putting it in comparison with something else. It’s a great way of building character and setting.

Let’s look at a famous example from literature:
The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key.”

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett O’Hara is pining over Ashley Wilkes here. Margaret Mitchell’s use of this simile tells us several things including:

1: She is infatuated with the idea of Ashley;

2: Her infatiation is unhelpful;

How do I draw these conclusions? The first is easy as Mitchell lays it out for us: when she writes the very “mystery” of him “excites” her, we get the impression that Scarlett doesn’t see Ashley as an ordinary person, but rather as something extraordinary.

The second conclusion comes from the simile itself. A door with neither lock nor key is quite useless. Of course, not all doors lock but the general function of a door is to allow or block passage. If Scarlett’s obsession is compared with something unhelpful or useless, the connotation is that her love is useless too.

Here we have an example of an effective simile being used to convey more than one layer of meaning. It adds depth to Scarlett’s character beyond the obvious. Yes, she is young and infatuated, but the desire she has for Ashley is signposted as unattainable or unreasonable from the beginning.


Metaphors work in the same way as similes except they create a direct comparison instead of saying one thing is like another. This can be particularly effective at conveying very strong feelings.

For example:

“It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

The sun, as we know, rises in the east. The idea of a sunrise is associated with positivity, new beginnings, beauty and tranquillity. A sunrise is something special and something that should be cherished.

By saying Juliet is this rather than saying is like this creates a strong meaning. Romeo doesn’t just like Juliet. He adores her to the extent that she is the most important thing to her, just like the sun is one of the most important parts of life. We need sunlight to live. Romeo implies that in the same way, he needs Juliet to live. (Spoiler alert: it’s true.)

A Note on Cliches

A cliche is something that has been written or said so many times that it has lost its meaning. Cliches are a bit like wallpaper: so often seen that they no longer register OR so awful they pull us out of the story.

Examples of cliched similes and metaphors include:

  • “Alike as two peas in a pod.”
  • “As cold as ice.”
  • “Bright as a button.”
  • “As good as gold.”
  • “The calm before the storm.”
  • “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

These are all phrases we’ve heard before. Because we’ve seen them SO many times, we either immediately dislike them or immediately ignore the..

When writing with similes and metaphors, ensure you think of something unique to you.


Ziv Gray View All →

#Queer writer of #YAFantasy and #YALGBT content. Blogger of all things #YA and writing help.

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