Similes vs. Metaphors? What's the Difference?

When writing, it's important to spice things up through the use of literary devices. Two popular devices that writers often employ are simile and metaphor. Both are figures of speech used to make comparisons and explain an idea in greater detail. They add color and intensity to writing and serve to make your descriptions more vivid. But what is the difference between these seemingly similar techniques? Let's find out below.

What is a Metaphor?

A metaphor compares two things by saying that one of them is the other. They can use an object, event, or idea as a symbol for something else. Metaphors aren't literal definitions and shouldn't be taken at face value. (For example, the metaphor "John is a couch potato" shouldn't have you thinking that John is an actual vegetable, just that he's lazy!)

You can usually recognize a metaphor through the use of "is", "are," or some other form of the verb "to be." Metaphors serve to make imagery more rich, describe people in unexpected ways, and frame abstract concepts for readers. They can even compare two extremely different things.

If you start using metaphors and find them effective, you may even want to try your hand at an extended metaphor, which expands on the initial comparison through more elaborate parallels.

Examples of Metaphors:

"The falling snowflakes are ballerinas."

"She is a shining star."

"My heart was a battlefield."

What is a Simile?

Unlike a metaphor, a simile draws resemblance between two things by saying, "Thing A is like Thing B," or "Thing A is as [adjective] as Thing B." You can recognize a simile through its use of the words "like" and "as" to compare things.

In contrast to a metaphor, a simile does not conclude that these things are the same, only that they are alike. A good way to memorize its meaning is to remember that the word "simile" sounds like the word "similar": a simile says that one thing is similar to something else.

Examples of Similes:

"Life is like a box of chocolates."

"I was as happy as a clam."

"Her cheeks were like roses."

What's the Difference?

To put it simply:
A metaphor says someone or something is something.
A simile says someone or something is like or similar to something.

Metaphors directly state a comparison. In contrast, similes use the words like or as to compare things. For example, "John is a pig" is a metaphor with a direct comparison, demonstrating that John and a pig are essentially the same. "John is like a pig" is a simile saying John is not the same as a pig but similar to one. For this reason, metaphors typically makes stronger statements than similes.

Let's take a look at some famous uses of metaphors and similes to see these rhetorical devices in action.

Metaphors in Literature

"Her mouth was a fountain of delight." - The Storm, by Kate Chopin

"My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations." - The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green

"Mr. Neck storms into class, a bull chasing thirty-three red flags." - Speak, by Laurie Anderson

"There was an invisible necklace of nows, stretching out in front of her along the crazy, twisting road, each bead a golden second." - Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge

Similes in Literature

"Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East.. " - Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie.

"Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I'm nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water." - The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

"She sat like Patience on a Monument, smiling at Grief." - Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare

"The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key." - Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Similes and metaphors are wonderful tools to spruce up your writing and your conversations. So go ahead and give them a try the next time you're practicing new English skills!

Tess Patalano is a writer at Reedsy, a marketplace giving authors and publishers access to talented professionals and free educational content. Her poetry chapbook, What Happened, was published by Dancing Girl Press.

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