Metaphor, Simile, and the So-Called “Granny Knot”

I recently received an email from a young lady who says she wants to be a writer. Her question was a fairly simple one, and I will answer it, but first, I am going to address some of the questions she didn’t ask. I replied to her in an email, but this is for all the other Amandas out there.

 

Amanda (that’s not real name – I borrowed it from one of my daughters) says that she is afraid to post her writing, because her blog is filled with Hello Kitty and her own fluffy white cat (I looked – that thing’s not a cat, it’s a monster. It’s an alien creature of some sort. It looks just like an Earthly cat, except it weighs about sixty pounds!), pictures of her cluttered bedroom, and “random dribbles of nonsense,” and she won’t be taken seriously if she posts serious writing. Well, Amanda, I have no idea how good your writing is or isn’t, because you didn’t send me any, but if your friends don’t take your writing seriously, it says more about them than it does about your writing. They may like it, they may not like it (and your first job as a writer is to realize that both of those reactions are valid and neither of them matter), but if they just don’t take it seriously, all you need to do is find some new readers. Not new friends, because not taking your writing seriously has little to do with their value as friends. There are billions of people on the internet. Some of them will take your writing seriously. Failing that, start a new blog. Put on your sternest face and your mother’s black blazer, and pretend you’re twenty. It’s not like you’d be the first writer to live under an assumed identity.

Ok, what’s the difference between simile and metaphor, and which one should you use?

Well, the difference is easy.

SIMILE

A simile compares things. Think “similar.” A simile says “This is similar to that.” If you see a comparison word, such as “like” or “as,” it’s a simile.

“He went down LIKE a sack of potatoes.”

“She kissed him LIKE a toddler kissing Santa.”

“That thing is a cat LIKE sasquatch is a weasel.”

Be careful you don’t mistake a simple descriptive phrase for a simile, though.

“She kissed him LIKE she had no idea how to do it.”

I suppose there are those who would say that that’s a simile, but I would disagree. Also, the word “like” gets used a lot these days as shorthand for such phrases as “something like.”

“He is LIKE six feet tall.”

“There were LIKE sixty people there.”

Sometimes, there’s grey area, somewhere in between simile and description.

“She is LIKE right below walnuts on the brain scale.”

METAPHOR

A metaphor, on the other hand, says that one thing IS another thing, not that it is LIKE it. It is left up to the reader to decide in what way the mostly non-similar things are being said to be alike.

“His anger WAS a freight train.”

“His fist WAS Thor’s hammer.”

“But she hit him first, and he WAS a sack of potatoes.”

No comparison is made, rather some form of actual identity is claimed.

By the way, you’ll be told that a “mixed metaphor” is what results when you make two or more metaphors in a row. A classic example is this:

“He stepped up to the plate and took the bull by the horns.”

Well, I disagree. That’s not a mixed metaphor, that’s a poorly worded statement containing two legitimate metaphors. Consider this:

“He stepped up to the plate, he took the bull by the horns, he struck while the iron was hot.”

It’s not great writing, but it’s a legitimate use of metaphor. A mixed metaphor is actually when the metaphor itself mixes terms that are incompatible, my favorite example being from one of the most over-rated writers on Earth:

“…to take arms against a sea of troubles…”

This is a metaphoric image of a man slashing the sea with his sword. As a metaphor for futility, it might have worked, but the line goes on to say “…and by opposing, end them.” You can’t end the advances of the sea by taking arms against them, and you can’t get away with that kind of writing in a modern creative writing class, and yet we are all supposed to bow down to Shakespeare for having gotten away with it. Don’t get me started.

Ok, now we come to the part where the realtor and the customer pull up in front of the house, and the customer says “It’s kind of small,” and the realtor says “Oh, it’s way bigger on the inside!” The issue of when to use which is way bigger than the issue of which is which.

THE MUCH-MALIGNED GRANNY KNOT

A “granny knot” is a square knot done wrong, right? Wrong. The fact is, a square knot is “better” than a granny knot only in that it is much less likely to jam, and therefore easier to untie under adverse conditions. In most cases, if the goal of the knot is simply to hold something together, a granny knot is actually a more secure knot. But if you tie a granny knot in the reef points of your club-footed jib, you may find yourself struggling on a tossing foredeck, trying to untie them. So the question isn’t which to use, it’s when to use each one.

Similes are quick and easy to write, and quick and easy to read. They require little thought, and therefore cause little distraction. The other side of that coin, though, is that they tend to be less potent. If you want your reader to stop and think (or to think without stopping), use a metaphor. If you want to make a point quickly, and you’re not too worried about verging close to that crumbling edge above the swamp labeled “cliché,” then use a simile.

One more thing about similes. In my short-short, Yellowbird Diner, I used four similes in the first paragraph. I was told by a reader that I should use metaphors, and I said no, because “Johnny don’t need no stinkin’ metaphors!” The same principle is at work in Persephone’s Wine, where, again, the character whose viewpoint we are following isn’t the sort who would use metaphor. Be careful not to violate your character’s voice. (It is astounding, by the way, how many times I’ve had people tell me who Persephone actually was, after they read Persephone’s Wine. I know, I know. Tell Justin Booker, not me.)

By the way:

I’m sure you’ve heard of kumis, the infamous fermented mare’s milk of the Central Asian steppes. Ever wonder why anybody’d drink fermented mare’s milk? Well, Wikipedia offers an explanation:

87.9% of Inner Mongolians are lactose intolerant. During fermentation, the lactose in mare’s milk is converted into lactic acid, ethanol, and carbon dioxide, and the milk becomes an accessible source of nutrition for people who are lactose intolerant.

They do not, however, offer any hint of how this might have been discovered, way back when. Somebody probably left the milk out in the sun too long, and went “Hey, that looks good! I’m gonna drink that!”

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