Use similes and metaphors to aid description

Several years ago, Margie Lawson taught a workshop put on by the Florida Writers Foundation in advance of the annual Florida Writers Association Conference. Margie teaches about the need to delve deep into character emotion to reach readers. When, at the end of the course, she asked what most struck us, the fellow sitting behind me said “I need to learn to cut loose with the metaphors.”

I don’t know whether he is also a recovering journalist, but he’s right.

Comparisons and similes are used to engage readers.

A farm boy. Poor. Poor and perfect. With eyes like the sea after a storm.—The Princess Bride, William Goldman

When Buttercup describes Westley’s eyes this way, she’s using a powerful simile that even echoes the backstory, because she believes he was killed while at sea.

Photo by Victor Silva •
Photo by Victor Silva •

Metaphors can be used the same way. Rage can be a volcano. A storm cloud is a menacing monster. Don’t be afraid to use similes and metaphors like this. They can be particularly effective when they reflect the viewpoint character’s background as when, in one of my stories, a veterinarian sees a shocked woman’s eyes as “showing too much white, like those of a spooked horse.”


Another good way to help readers envision story elements is to use comparisons. So for example, if a country boy goes to the big city and sees a skyscraper for the first time, he might compare it to a mountain or cliff.

In a fantasy or science fiction story, made-up creatures should be compared to things a reader can mentally conjure. A large animal might be described as three times the height of a man.

Comparisons can also solve the problem of describing the viewpoint character from her own point of view. We don’t often think about our own looks, but we do compare ourselves to others. Perhaps the hero meets a fellow taller and heavier than himself. Or the heroine meets a girl who is thinner and has longer hair. The comparison—whether positive or negative in the character’s thinking, will not only help the reader create a mental image, but will give a glimpse into the character’s personality as well.

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