imagery in writing

Similes, Metaphors, & Imagery Errors—Imagery Part II

quotation It is metaphor above all else that gives clearness, charm, and distinction to the style. writer quote  —Aristotle

quotation The greatest artist is one who expresses what is felt by everybody. writer quote  —Lama Govinda

Figures of speech—including hyperbole, understatement, personification, analogies, similes, and metaphors—employ words in a manner that exceeds their literal meaning.

A simile expresses likeness between two things connected by the word like, as, so, or than. We use similes to make explicit comparisons: light as a feather, as inseparable as two peas in a pod.

A metaphor compares two objects without a connecting word. While similes and metaphors are somewhat interchangeable, similes acknowledge the limitations of the comparative relationship by stating that something is similar to something. The metaphor make a stronger statement, as it assert that a subject, on some point of comparison, is the same as another otherwise unrelated subject.

Jack was like an ape that night.Jack was an ape that night.

In this example, you might imagine how choosing to use a simile over a metaphor would protect a writer from making an outrageous or unfair comparison. By the same token, you can see how a metaphor carries more oomph.

Writers use figures of speech to show rather than tell, to convey tone and emotion, and to make their writing more sensory.

Over my head the clouds thicken, then crack and split like a roar of cannonballs tumbling down a marble staircase; their bellies open—too late to run now!—and suddenly the rain comes down.

In the above example from Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey uses a simile (like a roar of cannonballs) and the metaphor (their bellies open). Through his depiction, you can see and hear the onset of the storm.

Without a direct reference to emotion, notice the sense of the futility and hopelessness conveyed in a line from John Updike’s “The Blessed Man of Boston”—

We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.

The mind’s eye sees the mucusy path of a slug. Which is excreted out of ourselves.  The verb carries such a painful tone, as well as agreeing with the compared subject.

In the following passage, Chris Cleave in his novel Little Bee demonstrates how rifles outlive their owners.

There were six soldiers. They were still a long way away, along the beach. The air above the sand was so hot that it dissolved the men’s legs into a shimmer, a green confusion of colors, so that the soldiers seemed to be floating toward us on a cloud made of some enchanted substance, free as the thoughts of a girl waking up from dreams on a hot beach. I screwed up my eyes against the glare and I saw the light gleaming on the barrels of the soldiers’ rifles. These rifles were more distinct than the men who carried them. They held their firm, straight lines while the men beneath them shimmered. In this way the weapons rode their men like mules, proud and gleaming in the sun, knowing that when a beast beneath them died, they would simply ride another one. This is how the future rode out to meet me in my country. The sun shone on its rifles and it pounded on my bare head too. I could not think. It was too hot and too late in the afternoon.

We’ve all seen the shimmer on the horizon of a hot day, and the image is made vivid. Cleave then juxtaposes the view of approaching danger with a feeling of leisure, “free as the thoughts of a girl waking up from dreams on a hot beach”. When the protagonist’s eye turns to the rifles, the writer turns the world upside down. The soldiers are the beasts of burden, exploited by guns personified with pride and cognizance. It’s powerful… profound… genius.

Sensory writing lulls readers to a dream state where they forget they’re reading. Remember, though, it takes but one error to startle them awake.


TWO TOO SIMILAR. The cheetah ran like a gazelle repeats what the reader already envisioned—an animal with speed and grace. The purpose of imagery is to show an object in a new light. It should give the reader a fresh vision of a familiar concept. If the imagery repeats the old way of looking at the object, it serves no purpose and reminds the reader that he is reading.

Comparing ice hockey to football makes the same error. The writer has simply put the image of competition in a different arena. By comparing ice hockey to a prize fight, though, the writer creates a violent image with bloodlust and wagers placed on the battle’s outcome.

When using imagery, don’t make the mistake of thinking literally. An apple is literally like a pear. Both fruit grow on trees, are juicy, about the same weight, etc.   One would not work as an image for the other. But saying that an apple has the heft of a baseball or that it dangles from the branch like jewelry from a woman’s ear gives the reader a sense of weight or delicacy. Imagery should say something specific about the item it represents, such as: Hockey is a violent sport.

Know what you’re trying to convey before searching your mind for imagery. When done right, metaphors and similes will invite readers to think differently about the subjects portrayed. Once you know what you want to show, free associate, play with language.  Then choose the image that best embodies the qualities you hope to represent.

EXTENDED IMAGERY. Many images won’t work unless they are conveyed with few words. Writers often create interesting images, but destroy them by overuse. Consider the following:

With his second hand Remington portable in front of him and the urge to write a novel burning inside of him, Brandy Firth began to explore his inner world. A first apprehensively, later with confidence, he followed the trail of each ambition that dwelled within him until he came to a clearing. He climbed the mountains of his fears until he could stand atop each one and look for miles. He pushed back the thickets of confusion, hacking away with a machete of common sense. Each day he mapped out some new inner territory, which he would navigate alone. He felt like a pioneer crossing areas that he had never seen before. From time to time he was ambushed by some anxiety he hadn’t known was there, and when he tried to pull back his wagon, the horse would often become confused and begin galloping desperately across years of memories that had been hidden behind a range, or forgotten on some barren prairie. He brought few supplies on these forays into his emotional wilderness, just his faith, and his curiosity and.…

You get the idea. The imagery of the inner self as territory for exploration is an acceptable image for several sentences, but eventually becomes ridiculous. The writer overdid it.

The trick, however, is to remember that hope is a perilous thing, that it’s not a steel and concrete bridge across the void between this moment and a brighter future. Hope is no stronger than tremulous beads of dew strung on a filament of spiderweb, and it alone can’t long support the terrible weight of an anguished mind and a tortured heart…. Koontz’s extended metaphor provides sophisticated development of an idea.

Here is a second example from the same novel, a metaphor that is less abstract but no less developed:

Bobby Holloway says my imagination is a three-hundred-ring circus. Currently I was in ring two hundred and ninety-nine, with elephants dancing and clowns cartwheeling and tigers leaping through rings of fire. The time had come to step back, leave the main tent, go buy some popcorn and a Coke, bliss out, cool down.

Because the goal of creating an extended metaphor can seem intimidating, take your person, place, thing, or idea—and do riff-writing. Open it up; explore it, even if everything you write is non-metaphoric. In an outside-in technique, look up your word in a thesaurus, simile dictionary, and quotation reference, and expand your “language” about it. You’ll get the hang of it. Next, think about your character from various angles. Consider the geography, era, setting of the scene, or theme of your story.

For imagery to work, it shouldn’t steal the show. It’s one thing to say—

Emily’s smile was like the sunrise.

In a few words, we understand the pleasing nature of Emily’s smile. But if you say—

Her smile was like the sun rising over a long green meadow in spring, when the birds are singing and the air is cool over the damp grass…

The sunrise overshadows character, and Emily’s smile is forgotten.

OVER-REACHING FOR IMAGES. When figures of speech are overdone, they backfire.

In the bestseller Polar Star, Matin Cruz Smith strains to get a metaphor and a simile into two successive sentences:

In the glare of the lamp, Volovoi’s crew cut was a crown of radiant spikes. Of course, Karp, who was doing all of the heavy labor, perspired like Vulcan at the forge.

What we see is not Volovoi’s crew cut or Karp’s perspiration but the author laboring to provide comparisons. He does it again:

Her black eyes balanced anxiously on enormous cheekbones.

When read aloud, the vision of black eyes balancing on cheekbones draws a laugh. It’s overwritten and deflects the reader’s attention from the story. Imagery should feel natural to both writer and reader.

If your image is too specialized or remote, readers become aware of its artificiality.

  • The buttons on Tazia’s coat were small and square like the little gray buttons you use to store telephone numbers on one of those new phones with built-in computers.
  • Bea was much smaller than her sister, like a xylem cell that had been produced in the later part of the year.

Reaching too far to come up with an image will be as obtrusive as a dinner guest reaching across the table for the salt shaker.  When hunting for color: Try, fly, experiment. If it shows strain, though, keep looking.  The search might be difficult, but the effect should be one of ease.

MIXED IMAGERY. One of the hazards of creating imagery is the mixed metaphor, in which two or more unrelated metaphors are combined:

  • He was dog tired but still feeling his oats.
  • Her love life had long been a desert on which nothing grew until she met Ted Ross and the waves of passion carried her to a shore she had never even seen before.

Once you use a metaphor, stay true to it. There’s nothing wrong with the desert metaphor or the ocean metaphor. If you mix them, though, or even use them in close proximity, they’ll work against each other.

  • Mixed metaphors often occur when writers string together clichés.Milking the temp workers for all they were worth, the manager barked orders at them. (The first image suggests cows; the second, dogs. That’s one animal too many.)
  • Unless we tighten our belts, we’ll sink like a stone. (Belts and a stone? I think not.)
  • The fullback was a bulldozer, running up and down the field like an angel. (Only Ali could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee; this football bulldozer can’t move like an angel.)
  • The movie weaves a story that herds characters and readers into the same camp. (Let’s not mix spiderwebs and cattle roundups.)


  • Like all comparisons, logic must link the two elements.
  • The comparison must be consistent.
  • Don’t use more than one metaphor per paragraph.
  • Make sure the verb matches the subject’s potential action. For example: a bulldozer driving up the field; “… like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.”

EXAMPLE: What do you wish to say about a cornfield you’ve written into your story?

If you said, “The cornfield was a wheatfield waiting to be harvested,” you would create a metaphor so similar to the original object that the reader would be confused.

If you said, “The corn was as high as an elephant’s ear,” the reader might think of the Broadway song that coined the comparison. The effect would be cliché unless you allude to the song, which could work if (and only if) the spirit of the song matches your intended tone.

If you said, “The rows of corn were as straight as the lines on a seersucker suit,” you would be reaching for an image that would distract the reader.

If you said, “The corn had been harvested. Like pennant hopes it would be planted again next spring, but for now a chapter has ended,” you’ve mixed metaphors.

If you said, “The stalks stood like soldiers called to attention,” you’ve shown their stillness and erectness. Even uniform rows are implied.

But what if the corn had been beaten down by a windstorm? You might change the simile to “soldiers in combat” to illustrate the wreckage and disarray.  If the corn had been picked, the stalks might be compared to something naked or lacking.

Notice how other writers use similes and metaphors in their work. As you revise your writing, see if you can make your descriptions more vivid and your ideas clearer by creating original similes and metaphors.

Imagery Exercise

Rewrite the following statements using a simile or a metaphor to show the subject’s mental or physical state, or the environment as seen through his or her eyes. If several ideas come to you, jot them down and evaluate which version is better when you’re done.

  1. Bob has been working at the same factory six days a week, ten hours a day, for the past twelve years.
  2. Margo had been working all day in the summer sun.
  3. This is Keith’s first day at college, and he is standing in a crowd attempting to register for classes.
  4. Gail spent her entire summer vacation soap operas.
  5. After all the troubles of the past few weeks, Mark felt finally felt some relief.
Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist