Using metaphor: types of comparison 2

In this video, D.D. Johnston introduces an exercise to prompt writers to consider different types of comparisons: direct metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, and conceit. Write along!

The simplest distinction between types of comparison is between metaphor and simile.  A simile makes a comparison by using as or like; a metaphor makes a comparison without qualification.

So, here’s a metaphor:

“The sky above them was another country.  Winter stars, close enough to lick, had come out before sunset.”

And here’s that metaphor rewritten as a simile:

“The sky above them was like another country.  Winter stars were big and bright, as if they were close enough to lick.”

So what I want you to do is to please write down any simile: for instance, I’ve gone for:

“She had long hair like a waterfall.”

You might want to pause the video to give yourself time.

Next, I want you to rewrite your simile as a direct metaphor. For instance, I’ve gone for:

“A waterfall of hair fell over her shoulders.”

Hyperbole is an exaggerated metaphor or simile where you overstate the comparison: For instance:

“He was the size of three mountains squashed together.”

Hyperbole is normally used for comic effect but can occasionally be put to serious use, as in Lola Haskins’ poem, “The Prodigy”:

          He was born with the ears of a dog.

He could hear his mother’s skin decay,

The soft give

As her cheeks sagged just barely more.

Please rewrite your metaphor as a hyperbolic description. I’ve gone for:

“She had a crashing great Niagra Falls of hair.”

In personification an animal or inanimate object is described as if it were a person. Personification has long been frowned on and should be used with caution – the critic John Ruskin famously described the attribution of emotion to non-human phenomena as the ‘pathetic fallacy’ – but this tactic is sometimes used effectively in contemporary fiction:

“When laborers imported from Haiti came to clear the land, clouds and fish were convinced that the world was over.” (Toni Morrison)

“The ice mass leaned as though to admire its reflection in the waves.” (Annie Proulx)

Please rewrite your hyperbole as a personification. I’ve gone for:

“Her hair seemed to jump off her head with an almost suicidal urgency.”

Finally, conceit. Conceit is a complex, developed comparison between two things that are extremely unalike:

“ridding oneself of faith is like boiling seawater to retrieve the salt – something is gained but something is lost” (Zadie Smith).

Conceit necessarily draws attention to itself and used unwisely will disrupt the reader’s progress through the story. Nevertheless, please have a go at rewriting your personified descriptions as a conceit. I’ve gone for:

“Her hair was like Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ – it arced her face and directed Jim’s gaze to a focal point that vanished where her cleavage disappeared under her vest.”

Well done and thanks for watching. Good luck with your writing!

The thumbnail for this video uses a photograph by Colton Witt. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here:

The Lola Haskins example was drawn from Janet Burroway’s excellent Writing Fiction.


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