Metaphorically speaking, Vanessa’s smile lit up the room (literally, the three LED lights over the kitchen counter did the trick). As a simile, when Vanessa smiled, it was like the sun suddenly came out (whereas actually, someone opened the blinds).
But seriously, we love punctuating narrative with our metaphor and simile friends. They add a literary richness to our prose and get the job done. Countless words could be wasted describing shapeless legs, with their lack of any discernible ankle and their undefined calves; or the legs could simply be called, as they were by one author, Doric columns. That comparison has stuck with us, even though at the time we had to look up Doric columns on Google, and even though we don’t remember whether the author was using a metaphor or a simile.
And just what is the difference?
A simile is a figure of speech using the words as or like to compare two unrelated things that share some common traits. A metaphor draws a comparison without using those words. Not that we really care about that distinction; an original and apt analogy by any name or technique is what we are looking for as readers and as writers. We crave a drink when we read about a Thanksgiving turkey as dry as the Gobi Desert, and we empathize with the cook when someone says her gravy was so runny Michael Phelps could have gone for a dip.
In Foreign Relations, our latest Val and Kit Mystery, Val says her new little friend takes a sip of milk, leaving a bubbly white mustache under her nose. Whereas Merriam-Webster says a mustache is the hair growing on the human upper lip, we know Val is metaphorically comparing that to the white bubbles of milk on the young girl’s face. Later, a simile emerges when Alistair stood up, and Devon rose with him, as if they were duct-taped together.
Metaphors and similes aren’t the only literary devices that intrigue us. So don’t relax, idioms; and keep your guard up, euphemisms. We’re coming for you soon.