No one does metaphor and simile like F. Scott Fitzgerald. He overwhelms and delights us with comparisons that slip so vividly, so precisely from the page that they leave us with little doubt about the emotion or detail the author was trying to convey. Consider Fitzgerald’s description of Daisy Buchanan’s home in The Great Gatsby:
“A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling–and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the the sea.”
I don’t know about you, but reading this made me feel like I was standing in the apartment with the main character, Nick. In this sentence, Fitzgerald uses two similes (like pale flags, as the wind does on the sea) and one metaphor (wedding cake of the ceiling). But these devices aren’t just handy for describing physical objects. They can lay human emotions bare enough for us to feel the sting and blush of them, even from the written (or e-inked) page. The following sentences are also from The Great Gatsby and describe Jay Gatsby’s first kiss with Daisy:
“His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”
Wow. “Romp again like the mind of God” and “she blossomed for him like a flower” are two beautiful similes. But the metaphor that describes the rush of anticipation experienced by Jay is my favorite because it’s so unexpected: “listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star.” That’s voice, isn’t it? Given the same task of describing this emotion to the reader, I don’t think I would have EVER put these two items together. But they totally work. I’m there on that moonlit street with Jay and Daisy.
Be warned, however, that you can have too much of a good thing. If you place too many similes and metaphors on one page, they lose their punch and fatigue the reader. Save them for when you really need to make an impact, describe something just so, or firmly put the reader in the shoes of a character.
Another thing to think about, especially writing in first person, is frame of reference. A pastry chef and a garage mechanic are going to describe things differently. Allow me to illustrate. Upon meeting a girl with freckles, the pastry chef might recall that she “had cheeks dusted with cocoa powder,” whereas the mechanic might remember that “her face was spotted, like my shirt collar after an oil change.”
A character’s region, too, has an impact on the number of metaphors and similes they might use. In my novel, SLEEPWALKING WITH DEER, my main character is a backwoods Texas girl. If you know nothing else about the Lone Star State, know this: we take crafting similes and metaphors to a competitive level. You can’t sling a dead cat without hitting one, especially when conversing with country folk. And I say this with love, since I come from country folk. However, in another one of my novels, UNIVERSAL FORCES, I use metaphor and simile sparingly, even though it’s got a West Texas setting, because my main character isn’t Texan, thinks very concretely, and has an academician for a parent.
So there you have it. If you love metaphor and simile, then I hope this article supplements your writer’s toolkit. If you’ve shied away from them in the past, then Fitzgerald just might give you the inspiration you need.
How about you? Do you wield metaphor and simile like a surgeon’s blade? Or do you shy away from their glitter, preferring a modernist approach?